- Cargill has invested in Memphis Meats, the startup behind the world's first cell-cultured meatball and chicken strip, according to a press release. Cargill did not reveal the size of the stake, but its investment was part of a $17 million Series A funding round led by DFJ, a venture capital firm that has previously backed Tesla. Richard Branson, Bill Gates and venture capital firms Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Atomico also invested in the latest round.
- This is the first investment by a traditional meat company in the "clean meat" segment, where companies use cutting-edge cell-replicating technology to grow beef, poultry and fish from living animal tissue.
- “Our investment in Memphis Meats is an exciting way for Cargill to explore the potential in this growing segment of the protein market," Sonya McCullum Roberts, president of growth ventures for Cargill Protein, said in a Memphis Meats release. "Memphis Meats has the potential to provide our customers and consumers with expanded protein choices and is aligned with our mission to nourish the world in a safe, responsible and sustainable way.”
For years, scientists, animal-welfare advocates and food technology startups have touted the potential "clean meat" has to overcome the inefficiencies and environmental costs of animal agriculture. Clean meat also eliminates issues surrounding humane treatment of livestock, an issue that has long-plagued major protein producers.
These benefits have caught the attention of smaller players such as Hampton Creek, which recently announced it's working to produce its own lab-grown meat products. But a high-profile investment by one of the world's biggest producers of beef and poultry makes it official: this technology could have a major role in the future of meat.
For now, that future is still a long way off. Memphis Meats CEO Uma Valeti told The Wall Street Journal that his company can make a pound of cell-cultured meat for less than $2,400, down from $18,000 last year. At the Institute of Food Technologists conference in June, Memphis Meats' senior scientist Eric Schulze said the startup expects to sell clean meat products in high-end restaurants at a higher-than-average price point by 2019. By 2021, it hopes to reach cost parity with grocery store meat products — at about $3 to $4 per pound.
Along with cost, Memphis also will need to overcome consumer skepticism and regulatory hurdles. Representatives for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Agricultural Department told The Wall Street Journal that "officials would need to determine whether the cell-culturing process is safe before considering whether such products count as meat." Valeti told the paper his company is speaking with both agencies.
Still, if clean meat is able to overcome these obstacles and break into the mainstream, changes to the meat industry could be significant. Schulze estimated Memphis' process requires up to 90% less greenhouse gas emissions, land and water than conventionally produced meat. He also said that despite innovations and industry fascination with plant-based protein alternatives — evidenced by Tyson's investment in meat alternative company Beyond Meat — consumer demand for meat will continue to grow.
“We’re going to bring meat to the plate in a more sustainable, affordable and delicious way,” Valeti said in a company release. “The world loves to eat meat, and it is core to many of our cultures and traditions. Meat demand is growing rapidly around the world. We want the world to keep eating what it loves."
Clean meat could help meet this demand. It will be interesting to see how Cargill's investment accelerates Memphis' timeline, or perhaps experimentation into other meat categories. So far, the company has used its cell-replicating technology to develop chicken, beef and duck meat, and is looking to expand into seafood as well. Memphis plans to use the funds to scale up meat production and cut costs to levels that are comparable to and eventually below conventional meat costs. Memphis expects to quadruple its headcount, and has started expanding its team of chefs, scientists, creative people and business workers.
It's likely that other meat companies will start to make investments of their own in this space, and if clean meat becomes a powerful category, one thing is certain: Cargill's empire will continue to reign.