Major food producers and meatpackers Tyson Foods Inc. and Cargill, along with numerous investors including Richard Branson and Bill Gates, are throwing millions of dollars behind efforts to develop and commercialize alternative protein products, particularly “clean meat,” also called lab-grown or cultured meat, and plant-based proteins.
The investments are fueled by the recognition of a growing worldwide demand for high-quality protein and increasing consumer preferences for environmentally friendly and sustainable food production. And while the market for clean meat and plant-based protein products is projected to remain small in comparison to traditional beef, pork, and poultry, the efforts clearly have the meat industry worried.
The U.S. Cattlemen’s Association (USCA), a leading trade group, has filed a petition with USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) requesting the agency officially limit the labeling of “beef” to “cattle born, raised, and harvested in the traditional manner… rather than coming from alternative sources such as a synthetic product from plant, insects, or other non-animal components and any product grown in labs from animal cells.”
Similarly, “products that are labeled as ‘meat’ should be limited to those that are derived from the tissue or flesh of an animal harvested in the traditional manner,” USCA said in its 15-page petition, submitted in February.
“Consumers depend upon the USDA FSIS to ensure that the products they purchase at the grocery store match their label descriptions,” said USCA President Kenny Graner, who asked the agency “to rectify the misleading labeling of ‘beef’ products that are made with plant or insect protein or grown in a petri dish.”
Similarly, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, another major trade group, has made the issue a priority in 2018, with “a focus on protecting the industry and consumers from fake meat and misleading labels on products that do not contain real beef.” The group is reportedly in discussions with USDA and FDA, as are representatives of companies developing these products.
The regulatory boundaries are somewhat vague. While FDA has purview over most food products, USDA has primary authority over meat, poultry, and most egg products. And FDA, not USDA, is typically involved in labeling disputes. While not commenting on the labeling issues, FDA said: “Given information we have at this time, it seems reasonable to think that cultured meat, if manufactured in accordance with appropriate safety standards and all relevant regulations, could be consumed safely.”
An FDA spokesperson added the agency was “committed to supporting innovation in the food supply” and encouraged manufacturers to “engage with us to address any questions they may have.” It isn’t clear when, or if, FDA or USDA may weigh in on the controversy, but neither is likely to rule on clean meat terminology until the technology is more fully developed, concludes a recent whitepaper from CoBank, a national cooperative farm bank based in Colorado.
The beef industry’s opposition to clean meat is “shortsighted” and “disappointing,” says Emily Byrd, communications director for the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that supports creation of “a healthy, humane, and sustainable food supply.” Plant-based and clean meat “have the potential to fundamentally transform meat production for the better,” she adds. “It’s up to the industry whether they will align themselves with this change and share the benefits, or fight this change to their detriment.”
Plant-based meat substitutes made from soy, nuts, and grains have been around for decades. Long a staple of vegetarians and the health-conscious, the segment is now becoming more mainstream, thanks to efforts by startup companies such as Los Angeles-based Beyond Meat, whose plant-based burgers, sausages, and chicken strips are so meat-like they can often be found in the supermarket meat aisle. In 2016, Tyson Foods took a 5 percent ownership stake in the company, followed by an additional investment last year.
The capital infusions come from a $150-million venture capital fund Tyson launched in December 2016 to invest in companies “developing breakthrough technologies, business models, and products to sustainably feed a growing world population.” Tom Hayes, Tyson president and CEO, admitted the company’s decision to invest in cultured meats and plant-based proteins “seemed counterintuitive to some inside our company.” But meeting the growing worldwide demand for protein, in ways that are sustainable, “will take a combination of innovative and traditional approaches,” he explained.
Earlier this year, Tyson New Ventures LLC also invested in Memphis Meats, a San Francisco-based startup developing meat that is cultured from living animal cells without the need to breed or slaughter the animals. Last year Memphis Meats received $17 million in VC funding from a group of investors including Cargill, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates. So far, the company has raised at least $22 million in funding.
“The world loves to eat meat, and it is core to many of our cultures and traditions,” said Uma Valeti, MD, cofounder and CEO of Memphis Meats. “However, the way conventional meat is produced today creates challenges for the environment, animal welfare, and human health.”
Supporters boast that clean meat production eliminates environmental contamination from animal waste runoff, requires no antibiotics or artificial hormones, produces no bacterial contamination, and doesn’t harm animals. Clean meat could be produced with up to 96 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions, 45 percent less energy, 99 percent lower land use, and 96 percent lower water use than conventional meat, according to a study from the University of Oxford.
USDA has estimated that the average U.S. consumer will eat more than 222 pounds of red meat and poultry this year, surpassing a record set in 2004. Despite this, 60 percent of U.S. consumers say they are cutting back on meat, and 17 percent of those aged 15-70 claim to be eating a predominantly plant-based diet, according to data from HealthFocus International. Worldwide, meat substitute sales could reach $5.2 billion by 2020, according to Allied Market Research, an 8.4 percent annual increase from 2015. While this is only a small fraction of the $750-billion market for conventional meat, projected supplies are likely to be insufficient as the world’s population reaches 9.7 billion by 2050.
All this is good news for companies developing alternative protein food products, which, in addition to Beyond Meat and Memphis Meats include Amy’s Kitchen, JUST, Inc. (formerly Hampton Creek), and Morningstar Farms in the U.S.; Cauldron Foods, Quorn Foods, and Vbites Food in the U.K.; Garden Protein International in Canada; and MosaMeat and Meatless B.V. in The Netherlands.
How to Grow Clean Meat
The idea of using tissue engineering to produce edible meat is far from new. In 1932, Winston Churchill predicted that within 50 years, “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” His forecast wasn’t far off. In-vitro cultivation of muscle fibers was first performed in 1971. In 2000, inventor Jon Vein received one of the first U.S. patents for the production of tissue engineered meat for human consumption.
Today, two main biotechnologies are used to produce cultured meat. The first, called the “self-organizing technique” uses muscle cells of donor animals to self-replicate in a nutrient medium containing salts, pH buffers, and other molecules. The technique can be used to create highly-structured meat, such as steak. But new animal cells are needed regularly and quantity production is limited.
The second or “scaffold-based technique,” uses adult stem cells where embryonic myoblasts or adult skeletal muscle cells are attached to an edible or biodegradable scaffold or support structure and fed a culture medium in a stainless-steel bioreactor. This approach is used to produce ground meat products. Numerous technological issues remain to be solved and production costs, while falling, remain exorbitant.
Memphis Meat, for example, reported last year that a pound of clean meat costs $2,400 to produce. This, however, is compared to an estimated $18,000 in 2016 and $325,000 in 2013. As technology advances and production scales up, costs are expected to fall. Netherlands-based MosaMeat predicts its clean beef could eventually cost a competitive $3.60 per pound.
While the timeline for commercial viability of clean meat remains unknown, many estimates place market introduction to be within the next three to five years, with widespread supermarket adoption within the following two or three years.
Challenges to Clean Meat
In addition to cost, there remains the challenge of consumer perception. In 2014, 80 percent of Americans said they would not eat meat that was grown in a lab, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Sentiments are changing. A separate 2016 survey found only about 20 percent of Americans were unwilling to try cultured meat, with two-thirds willing to try it and one-third willing to consume it regularly. Potential barriers were identified as taste/product appeal (79 percent), ethical concerns (involving high-tech genetics, 24 percent), and price (20 percent).
Much of the perception issue involves marketing, namely what the product will be called. Supporters prefer positive-sounding terminology, such as “clean meat,” while opponents tend to characterize it as “in-vitro meat,” “lab-grown meat,” or, as the Cattlemen’s Association puts it, meat “grown in a petri dish.”
Clean meat is similar to “clean energy” by communicating important aspects of the technology, “both the environmental benefits and the decrease in foodborne pathogens and drug residues,” says Bruce Friedrich, cofounder and executive director of the Good Food Institute.
“It is no more accurate to say that clean meat is ‘lab grown’ than it is to say that Cheerios and commercial peanut butter are ‘lab created,’” Friedrich says. “All processed foods start in a food laboratory, of course, but with clean meat, the end result is real, pure meat.”