Cultured connoisseurs: Meet the alt-protein pioneers with a steak in the future

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

©iStock
©iStock

Related tags: Meat

Promises of 'clean' meat that negates the need to raise and kill animals continue to attract both headlines and investment, meaning progress towards getting affordable cultured meat on supermarket shelves has been swift.

Cultured meat has caught the public imagination because it offers a solution to the growing concern that traditional methods of meat production are not a long-term sustainable prospect. 

The sector is still in its infancy but growing resource is being placed behind it. Indeed, cultured meat took a big step towards the mainstream this week with the news that Cargill, amongst other unnamed "food industry giants"​, had chosen to invest €14.4m ($17m)​ in US clean meat specialists Memphis Meats.

Like peers such as Dutch-based Mosa Meats and Israeli crowd-funded SuperMeat, Memphis Meats is at the forefront of developing unique laboratory methods to produce meat.

Overriding meaty issues

Cargill’s willingness to invest in Memphis Meat is perhaps an indication that meat companies are coming to view cultured meat as an opportunity, not a threat.

“An environmentally friendly production method that results in fewer animals being reared for food is becoming a big selling point as sustainability issues become more urgent,”​ explained Dr Peter Verstrate, CEO of Mosa Meat. “We’re seeing it more and more, not only with consumers but the established meat industry, who are realising this.”

However, industry backing is just the start. Companies like Cargill know that, as with all emerging technology, a number of issues need to be overcome before cultured meat can be considered a truly disruptive innovation.

“The biggest obstacle right now is mass production at a competitive price,”​ said Paul Cuatrecasas, CEO of Aquaa Partners, a technology-focused investment bank that works with traditional companies.

“A number of companies have already started putting lab-grown meat into supermarkets. But at the moment lab-grown burgers are retailing at a price point that is higher than conventional meat. This is because lab meat isn’t being produced at a mass scale at the moment.”

Hampton Creek has also publicly said it aims to make its first commercial sale in lab-grown meat by the end of 2018, which will likely be in the avian family.

Others point to technical considerations currently limiting the rapid scale-up of production.

“There needs to first be the right plant based/vegan media for the cells to grow efficiently,”​ said Dr. Kurt Schmidinger, team leader of Future Food, an Austrian based initiative that promotes the research into and development of cultured meat.

“This includes vegan and cost-effective growth-factors that signal the stem cells to become muscle cells.

“Bioreactors (that supply cells with the energy requirements) need to be monitored effectively in every part of the reactor, so that contamination can be detected and removed at an early stage of the tissue growth.

“Finally, edible scaffolds or other technologies and ideas need to be created that are able to produce three-dimensional meat with the desired texture.”

Target consumer

Dr Schmidinger‘s assertion that a “vegan growth-factor​” is required raises the issue of cultured meat’s consumer appeal – a factor that becomes its driving force into the mainstream and which success is hinged on.

With so many ‘consumer types’ - flexitarians, meat reducers, vegans, vegetarians and ethical meat lovers - the question is can food firms appeal to them all with this unique protein source?

“Surveys performed in various European countries and in the USA indicate 20 to 50% of consumers are willing to try cultured meat,”​ claimed Mark Post, professor of Vascular Physiology at Maastricht University in The Netherlands and co-founder/CSO of Mosa Meat.

“As an early adopter base that is more than enough. We are quite confident that when the product is of high quality and not too expensive the benefits will appeal to the consumer.”

Others are a lot more specific claiming the main consumers of lab-grown meat in the future will be traditional meat-eaters.

“I think it’s a common misconception that lab-meat companies are targeting vegetarians,”​ commented Cuatrecasas. “Lab-meat will be cheaper than conventional meat and it won’t take the supermarkets long to see the commercial opportunity and start rolling it out across their ranges. 

“This is the market that the majority of the lab-grown meat companies are going after. It’s the biggest market, and they see the opportunities there.”

Honesty is (probably) the best policy

Much will also depend on how cultured meats are presented to the public.

Is it the health angle that is most appealing or the sustainability credentials of cultured meat that will grab a slice of the market?

Or is it possible, like soy, for products in this category to fall below expectations and become pigeonholed as niche products?

According to Dr Schmidinger cultured meat would not be marketed by taking the bioreactor as a starting point, but maybe showing the end product and “emphasising the advantages for the whole family - or something like that.”

“That's what advertising always does,” he added.  “I do not expect cultured meat to break these rules of marketing. Although personally, I would much prefer a more honest form of advertising but, of course, for ALL products, not just cultured meat!”

“I’m sure that a number of companies in the lab-grown meat sector will use their sustainability credentials in their marketing, and this will undoubtedly be attractive to some consumers,”​ added Cuatrecasas.

“But I think that the main driver will be cost. If lab-grown meat falls to half the price of conventional meat, or even lower, it will be difficult for consumers to say ‘no’.”

Cultured meats not to be underestimated

Cuatrecasas is adamant that the determination of the industry to overcome price and production obstacles should not be underestimated.

As recently as 2103 the first lab-grown burger produced by Mosa Meat cost the equivalent of €1.01m ($1.2m) per pound, retail.

According to professor Post, the price has since fallen to €9.6 ($11.36) per pound– and they have ambitions to reach price parity by 2024.  Memphis Meats have shown even greater ambition believing that they can reach price parity by 2021.

Meanwhile, Hampton Creek also announced this month that it planned to grant commercial licenses to global meat companies so they can use its technology to rapidly scale production.

“Affordable lab-meat for the masses is coming,”​ predicted Cuatrecasas, “It’s just a matter of when.”

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