For many, the plan to repair the damage to the environment, public health and animal welfare caused by factory animal agriculture is important, but the prospect of humans giving up meat is just not realistic. For those, in cell culture (or “cultivated”, “clean”, “cell-based”, “laboratory-grown”, etc.) is the most promising route.
In just a few short years, cell culture meat has grown from a noble idea to a true consumer product. The concept of growing meat outside of an animal has been a sci-fi fascination ever since Winston Churchill suggested the concept nearly a century ago, if not before. But real developments in bringing cell culture meat to market have started to accelerate of late. In 2020, Singapore became the first country to approve cell-grown meat for sale to consumers, and soon after, US company Eat Just launched its animal-free chicken at the private club. 1880. At the end of 2021, the startup based in Berkeley Foods upside down (formerly Memphis Meats) opened its first full-scale production facility in California, which is expected to produce 50,000 pounds of cell-culture meat for commercial sale each year.
At least 60 companies worldwide now constitute the nascent cell culture meat industry, and with nearly a billion dollars invested in 2021 alone, their products are eagerly awaited. There are still many technological challenges to overcome for meat without animals, especially on a large scale, but it should come as no surprise that a number of innovations to address these issues are also in the works. With all the money and brainpower at work, we’re likely to see some major breakthroughs for cell culture meat over the next year or so. Here are some trends I have in mind right now.
Accelerators and incubators
Because cell culture meat is such an exciting prospect for many in the food industry and beyond, there is good support for companies trying to manufacture it. Globally, several accelerator and incubator programs are in place to help promising start-ups develop their products and eventually bring them to market. Many of these programs exist specifically to elevate brands that seek to produce environmentally friendly solutions, namely plant-based and cell-culture meats and other proteins. The organizations and companies at the origin of these entrepreneurship the programs invest in the planet as well as in their own businesses by supporting innovations in food technologies.
Small brands lead the way
One of these programs is Nestlé’s R&D Accelerator Network, which operates in several countries and has adopted some environmentally conscious brands. But it’s not just the Swiss food giant hoping to learn from fledgling companies making bold innovations. Microbial fermentation, like cell culture, is a process used in food technology to replicate animal proteins ex vivo (i.e. outside of a real animal). Perfect Day is leading the way with its cow-free, lab-made dairy protein, which is currently best known as the secret ingredient in Brave Robot’s ice cream. But Perfect Day has also caught the attention of much larger food companies, namely General Mills, which plans to launch their Bold Cultr line of cowless dairy products using Perfect Day’s protein in early 2022. And then there’s The EVERY Company, which had previously launched fermented protein in consumer products like a egg white protein powder sold at Pressed Juicery. The future of animal-free animal protein isn’t just near, it’s here. I expect this will push other legacy companies to take inspiration from the startup world and invest in these innovations.
Go really animal free
There is still an ethical hurdle to overcome for cell culture meat – or at least there was. Fetal bovine serum (FBS), which is harvested from the fetuses of pregnant cows during slaughter, has always been the key to culturing animal protein cells ex vivo. Not only is the use of FBS clearly a problem in terms of animal cruelty, it is very expensive and exposes the products to some of the same risks as traditional meat, such as contamination. Fortunately, several companies in space cultured meat in cells claim to have developed methods which do not require FBS or any other animal input. These methods are proprietary, so we don’t know exactly what they are – but if a few companies have figured this out, we can certainly expect more in the near future.
Corporate intellectual property, however, is unlikely to hold back the industry for too long. the Shojin Meat is an online resource and community for independent scientists to compare their notes, share their findings, and ultimately support each other in the process of developing affordable, cruelty-free cell culture meat. Industry leaders like Shiok Meats CEO Sandhya Sriram believe DIY cell culture meat could be a reality in a decade, facilitated by the fact that bioreactors become a normal household item. But even in the shorter term, the Shojinmeat project is likely to have an impact. Project participants have been successful in raising fish and oysters so far, and the discoveries they share can only help fuel the industry.
Culturally specific and niche meats
From Shojinmeat’s “citizen scientists” to innovative accelerator-backed companies around the world, there is a peculiar and perhaps unexpected application for cell culture meat. While many focus primarily on growing staples like beef and chicken, some of these teams work instead on growing meats that are traditionally expensive, damaging to the environment, or unusually cruel to produce. Shojinmeat has an offshoot project focused on creating cruelty-free foie gras, and a company called Avant Meats is development cell culture versions of fish mouth and fish swim bladder, Chinese delicacies typically harvested from endangered species. Wish Food goes one step further and explores animal proteins that are rarely, if ever, ingested by humans – like, for example, the zebra. They essentially ask the question, if cruelty was not an issue, what else could we eat and enjoy under the sun?
Milk – not just cow
Of course, delivering cruelty-free alternatives to traditional cow’s milk is a major focus for the food tech space, and companies like the aforementioned Perfect Day are making it a reality. But it is not only cow’s milk that is studied and reproduced. Singaporean company TurtleTree is working on grow dairy products without a cow, but they are also exploring other practical applications that go far beyond the grocery store: they seek to reproduce the breast milk of other species that need it; for example, snow leopards, which in captivity tend to by-produce milk for their young. Likewise, a company based in North Carolina Biomilq is working to develop human breast milk from stem cells, which would then be an option available alongside formula for families who do not have access to enough breast milk, if any, for their infants.
Make it affordable
When the first burger successfully grown in cell culture debuted in 2013, it was estimated to be priced at over a quarter of a million dollars. In less than a decade, some companies in the food technology industry claim to have found a way to dramatically cut costs, making them achievable consumer products. Israeli company Future Meat Technologies announcement in early 2021 that they can now cook their cultured chicken for just $ 7.50 per serving, for example, and Eat Just priced their GOOD MEAT chicken sold in the 1880 club in Singapore at around $ 23. As a rule, prices are still not comparable to those of traditional meat, but technological advancements are allowing brands to manufacture their products more cheaply, which brings them considerably closer to the grocery store shelves.
Even though most of these companies are not yet ready to launch their products on the market, regulators around the world are eagerly awaiting these conversations. In the United States in particular, there is a permanent dialogue between the USDA and the cell culture meat industry regarding the terminology they will use, labeling requirements and other playing field. We will likely hear many points being raised from all sides (including the beef industry, a potential opponent of cell culture meat) as conversations continue. And I hope that the fact that these conversations are already starting will help get things done faster once companies are ready to start marketing products.
The landscape of cell-cultured meat, and even microbially fermented animal products, is a complicated place where futuristic technology, ethics, law, and business all tackle the unknown together. From an outside perspective, it seems like there is still a long way to go before your local grocery store sells cruelty-free chicken that is chemically identical to the regular product. But with all the money, enthusiasm, and incredibly innovative thinking invested in the project, it seems inevitable that we will continue to see progress in the industry for the foreseeable future. If brands can deliver on their promises, we could have a very different conversation – and explore some very new options – around this time next year. If the future isn’t already here, chances are it will be very, very soon.