Many people don’t forget the day they found out their chicken nuggets came from a bird, not unlike one they may have seen in cartoons or in the local petting zoo. When I found out the cold, hard, crispy truth, I told my mom we had to be vegetarians now, a lifestyle choice that lasted all the way to McDonald’s, where I eagerly picked out the toy for my Happy Meal.
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But that’s a rite of passage that Tim van de Rijdt, chief business officer at Mosa Meat, said in the not-too-distant future, could be passé.
“When you grow up, everybody has this moment where you go ‘Oh wait, we kill animals for food?’” he said in a recent interview with Crunchbase News. “But this might be the first generation that just doesn’t happen.”
That’s because cell-cultured meat—food that is biologically the same as the meat from animals, but made in a stainless steel bioreactor using a small cluster of stem cells that scientists can grow into muscle and fat—is on the rise.
While some cultured meats have already hit the market in Singapore, others are working their way through regulatory processes in Europe and America, inching closer to unveiling products in restaurants and eventually grocery stores.
The question is: Will consumers have an appetite for meat made in stainless steel containers? Startups in the field, with billions in venture funding behind them, are starting to make their case to a sometimes skeptical public, though that effort is hindered by the fact that few have been approved to commercialize their products and get them in front of diners.
Mosa Meat, a cell-cultured meat startup in the Netherlands, has a long history of trying to do away with the living animal component of meat. In 2013, the company was the first to grow a few edible (if not a little dry, according to at least one taste-tester) hamburger patties in a lab, a feat that was greeted with enthusiasm by investors—including Google co-founder Sergey Brin—and awe by the world, especially when people learned it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to make them.
Investment in cultured meat has grown steadily in the eight years since Mosa Meat debuted those hamburgers in 2013, when Crunchbase data records $25 million in global investment to the industry.
In 2020, investors poured more than $1.2 billion into startups around the world working on cell-cultured meat and other cell-cultured meat alternatives. So far this year, venture investors have bet another $913 million on the industry, Crunchbase data shows.
If startups can get the cost down, the technology to grow meat in containers could be the answer to global food scarcity, advocates say.
One tiny cluster of animal cells could produce the savory centers of hundreds of sandwiches.
The technology has also been touted by company founders as a way to ease climate change associated with meat production—considering that about a third of human-induced methane emissions are estimated to come from livestock, mostly beef and dairy cattle, and farm animals are responsible for about 14 percent of all human-caused climate emissions.
With cultured meat, the hormones, antibiotics and heavy metals that sometimes appear in farmed meat or fish could also be a distant worry, company founders say.
And, as the cherry on top, kids might never have to learn why the Chick-fil-A cow so desperately wants them to eat chicken.
Winning over skeptical consumers
Eight years after Mosa Meat unveiled those first burgers, the technology has come a long way. More startups have joined the fold in an attempt to make a cell-cultured meat burger indistinguishable from the kind humans have been eating for generations while also making it less expensive to produce. Some companies are making chicken that doesn’t come from a bird and others have even mastered the art of lab-grown sushi.
Consumers, likewise, have grown increasingly comfortable with nonmeat alternatives to the foods they love, even if they aren’t personally buying tofurkey.
But the ultra-scientific process of growing real meat in a lab is still a new concept—one that conjures a lot of questions for many consumers and a little discomfort for some. That’s something cell-cultured meat makers will have to overcome to scale up when their products hit the market.
“The idea of eating real meat without slaughtering an animal is just a newer concept,” Josh Tetrick, co-founder and CEO of Eat Just, which sells a vegan egg alternative, called Just Egg and GOOD Meat, a cell-cultured chicken that has launched in Singapore, but not yet in the U.S.
It may only be a matter of time until people become accustomed to cell-cultured meat, as customers did for plant-based eggs, Tetrick said. Indeed, time does seem to be on cultured meat’s side: A study commissioned by Eat Just that surveyed 2,522 U.S. consumers this year showed that 69 percent of people would consider trading out conventional meat for cultured meat.
Researchers from the University of Bath and Portland State University also say framing by companies and in the media could have a strong impact on whether the public is open to cell-cultured food. While surveys show consumers are open to eating the meat when touted as natural, healthy and sustainable, their hackles are raised when it starts to sound too much like sci-fi.
“We demonstrate that those who encounter cultured meat through the ‘high tech’ frame have significantly more negative attitudes toward the concept, and are significantly less likely to consume it,” the researchers concluded in their 2019 study.
And, it turns out, age has a lot to do with attitudes, according to those we spoke with.
San Francisco-based Wildtype in June opened a pilot facility to grow sushi-grade fish at a larger scale than it can in a lab. They’ve since hosted free invite tastings and have found the younger the consumers, the less they seem bothered by the idea that their main course could be grown in a stainless steel container rather than born and raised on a farm.
That’s a trend that bodes well for the long-term future of the industry.
“Younger folks are like, ‘Yeah, I’ve been waiting for this for a long time, hurry up already and launch it,’” Wildtype co-founder Justin Kolbeck told Crunchbase News.
Often, knowing less is more when it comes to the intimate details that led to the food ending up on your plate. But when it comes to cell-cultured meats, that may not be true for older adults.
In Tetrick’s experience, when consumers under the age of 25 are told the meat they’re eating was made in a large stainless steel vessel, “they nod their heads and enjoy the chicken.”
That’s been more of a challenge with older consumers, he said. “You really have to unpack it and I think one of the lessons that we learned in going into Singapore is people actually want to understand the elements of it even more than I thought, … like where the cell came from, what are the nutrients to feed the cell, what does it look like in a bioreactor,” he said.
Taste testing proves key
One of the most effective ways companies have found to get this information to potential customers is by offering it in a controlled setting—a restaurant, for instance. That’s why GOOD Meat rolled out its chicken at 1880, a private club in Singapore trying to “inspire conversations.” The club served GOOD Meat chicken to members during a series of “immersive dinners” through 2020.
Then the company partnered with more restaurants and Foodpanda, a food delivery company, to bring the cell-cultured meat to patrons at home. It also sent along a Google cardboard headset and instructions to watch a film that explained the benefits of eating GOOD Meat.
Wildtype has hosted about 100 free tastings by invite as it gathers feedback and works toward approval to sell its products to paying customers.
“The biggest surprise, for me at least, has been when you start with the food, there’s this moment of, almost a little bit of a letdown, like people were expecting something different, and all they got was salmon,” Kolbeck said with a laugh. “It’s like, ‘Well, this was made in this really cool way, but it is like every other nigiri piece I’ve ever had.’”
But that, of course, is also the point. Wildtype is still working to perfect the look, taste and feel of its sushi products—which face the added challenge of not only tasting like fish, but looking like fish—to mimic the real deal, and it’s gotten very close, Kolbeck said.
The road to regulatory approval
Wildtype is currently working with the Food and Drug Administration to prove its product is ready for purchase.
The timeline for approval is hard to pinpoint, Kolbeck said. But he and co-founder Aryé Elfenbein are optimistic it isn’t too far off—as in, within a year or two. They’d be prepared to launch today, on a limited scale, if they had that approval, Elfenbein said.
“There’s still improvements we want to make to the product, but that’s something that we would want more customers to weigh in on in terms of how we can improve,” Elfenbein said.
Cell-cultured meat and fish is still relatively expensive to make, but once the food can be made at a larger scale, each of the startups we spoke with said they think their products could be competitive with, if not less expensive than, farm-grown beef, chicken and fish.
Wildtype’s San Francisco plant also offers sushi tasting with an explainer, although because it can’t commercialize the food yet, its converts are still small in number, which means consumer feedback is relatively sparse—the missing piece in many cell-cultured food startups’ processes.
That’s why Kolbeck and Elfenbein are mulling—though they say it’s only an idea for now—creating a Wildtype eatery or sushi bar.
“The advantage … would be that we can get instant feedback every single night,” Kolbeck said. “So the idea is like, ‘Hey, we’ll give you a normal cost experience for good value, but you have to fill out a little survey and tell us what you liked and what you didn’t like.’ You can imagine how quickly that can inform iteration cycles.”
But before any such sushi bar can open in the U.S., it must get regulatory approval to launch in the first place.
The FDA hasn’t approved cell-cultured meat for commercialization in America. San Francisco’s Eat Just launched its GOOD Meat chicken in Singapore last year in large part because the pathway to market is more streamlined there than in the U.S., Tetrick said.
“It’s really a consequence of Singapore having a really forward-thinking unified national policy on sustainable food and how it will impact their economy, their people, food security, a new industry that it wants to form, and also a really forward-thinking regulatory body,” he said, noting that the evidence-based approach Singapore took has made the country into “a global hub” for food technology.
Eat Just and Mosa Meat are both working with regulators in Europe, which has an approximately 18-month process for approval, although that timeline can vary. All three companies—Mosa Meat, Eat Just and Wildtype—aim to also commercialize in the U.S., though the regulatory process in America is more murky.
When their American debuts come, all three say their meats will launch in restaurants, likely as a premium dish as they scale up production. But the ultimate goal is that one day in the not-too-distant future, families around the world will be able stop by their local grocer and easily find cultured meat, and that kids will never have to think twice about their chicken nuggets again.
Startups included in the investment data for this article are venture-funded companies in the food production industry that work with cell-cultured technology, which includes companies that produce cultured food from both plants and animals.
Illustration: Dom Guzman
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