At a presentation at the Institute of Food Technologists conference in Chicago on Tuesday, Mosa Meat CEO Peter Verstrate gestured to an idyllic photo of green pasture on a screen behind him.
“In this beautiful meadow, you may have noticed the absence of cows,” he said. “Perhaps it’s a photo from 2050 or so, when we have finally created a true alternative for meat.”
Verstrate and a growing number of food tech startups, NGOs, venture capitalists and even big food companies agree that this alternative is cell-cultured meat — sometimes called "clean meat" because it is free of many traditional meat contaminants. But what’s unclear is when this segment, which MarketsandMarkets predicts will hit $15.5 million in just three years, will finally commercialize and enter retail.
Many U.S. innovators have set aggressive market launch goals. Leading lab-grown meat producer Memphis Meats aims to debut its lab-grown proteins in stores by 2021.This promising timeline, coupled with the company’s successful and steady reduction of production costs, has attracted investment from Bill Gates, Richard Branson and competing protein firms Tyson and Cargill. It’s also sparked strong optimism in the segment’s future.
David Bowman, co-founder and CSO of new cell-cultured meat company Mission Barns said at the conference that this product’s potential stretches far beyond just resembling conventional meat. It could be used for novel protein innovations, such as tailoring the size of a chicken breast to fit perfectly inside of a skillet. Kristopher Gasteratos, founder and president of the Cellular Agriculture Society, had even loftier visions for potential applications, musing that the technology could be used to feed future colonies on Mars.
But despite excitement around these potential applications — as well as clean meat’s efficiency, environmental sustainability and arguably superior food safety — those working around the sector agreed that cell-cultured meat’s path forward is still crowded with a number of obstacles.
A volatile regulatory climate
The question of which regulatory agency should have jurisdiction over the nascent industry poses the greatest threat to its development, Stuart Pape, chair of law firm Polsinelli's Food and Drug Administration practice, said during a conference panel.
“I think the legal and regulatory issues are the ones that determine whether this technology is commercially successful or not,” he said.
Pape said this is tied directly to whether or not cell-cultured products can be labeled as meat. This question has been swirling since the technology’s inception, and the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association’s recently petitioned the FDA to exclude lab-grown beef from the term “meat” — especially since traditional meat companies pay into checkoff programs for promotion.
If the product is labeled “meat,” it would hypothetically fall under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s jurisdiction, as outlined in the Federal Meat Inspection Act, Pape said. If it is not officially considered a meat product, then it would be considered simply a “food” product, and would fall under FDA oversight as outlined in the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.
"I think the legal and regulatory issues are the ones that determine whether this technology is commercially successful or not."
Practice chair, Polsinelli
“One of the most amusing things is that there are a number of USDA spokesmen who have said that… these products should be subject to the same inspection as conventional beef and poultry products,” Pape said. “That confounds me. Is a USDA inspector going to stand in a facility and stare at [a] bioreactor?”
Pape argued that because the FDA has extensive experience with new food ingredients and the technology that underlies cellular agriculture, it should be the body to regulate lab-grown meat. It appears the agency feels similarly — just last week, it hosted a public hearing on cell-cultured meat, a move that many have viewed as a power grab away from the USDA.
"The fact that the FDA has asserted its authority here is very significant," Jessica Almy, policy director at the Good Food Institute, told an IFT audience. "When we're thinking about all the different components that go into clean meat, like cell culture, media and scaffolding, the FDA has indicated it's really that end product — what the consumers are guying to buy — that matters. It's the safety of those products the agency would consider."
Jurisdiction still remains wide open, however, and Pape said it’s possible that the two agencies could also end up working together to develop nomenclature for cellular agriculture products. But Pape is still concerned by the possibility of these products being regulated alongside conventionally produced beef, poultry and pork.
“I think there’s a risk that if these products are regulated by the USDA, they will not reach the market in the lifetime of anyone in this room,” he said. “Because there is simply no evidence whatsoever that the USDA has… the desire to introduce these products quickly.”
High production costs
Another major stumbling block to commercialization for cell-cultured meat is how costly production of these products is.
And though producers have come a long way from the world’s first ever cell-cultured meat product — a 150 gram hamburger that cost $325,000 to produce in 2013 — manufacturers in this space still have a long way to go before they can reach cost parity with traditionally produced meats. Memphis Meats, for example, hopes to lower production costs to under $5, but it currently takes $2,400 to grow one pound of the company’s meat.
What makes this process so expensive? Mission Barns CSO David Bowman said that it’s the nutrient broth, called “media,” that is fed to cells so they will grow like muscle and create fat marbling and other tissue structures found in conventional meat products.
Bowman suggested that if cell-cultured meat producers could find a way to reuse the ingredients needed to feed the sells, costs could be significantly trimmed.
“We believe that technologies exist to recycle some of the components left over and remove the waste products," Bowman said. "And that gets us within striking distance of conventional meat products.”
Verstrate of Mosa Meat said that in order to cut the cost of the feed for cells, the segment will need to build out its ingredient supply chain, especially for animal serum — a controversial cocktail of growth-inducing proteins harvested from animal blood, most often from calf fetuses removed from cows slaughtered in the dairy or beef industry. Animal serum is commonly one of the key components of media for growing cells. The serum, he said, is going to ultimately be about 80% of the meat's price.
“The supply chain that produces it, which essentially does not exist today, ... includes both sourcing of materials that are best in their fields. And specific attention needs to be given to the growth factors and scale the production capacity of specific key molecules.”
Bowman believes that animal serum should be avoided and replaced entirely. This will be easier said than done, as nearly every lab-grown meat producer uses some form of animal serum to produce their products — though many are actively working to find alternative growth triggers.
“I think that fetal bovine serum is a non-starter because that process would not be sustainable, and would require at least as many cows as are slaughtered now,” he told an IFT audience. “I think in the future we’re going to have media recipes developed in-house that are patented and are trade secrets like the Coke recipe, and it will require partnering with entities that are able to provide media and have robust supply chains in place that we need to produce large quantities."
Lack of government investment
The U.S. is by far the biggest developing lab-grown meat market in the world, thanks to the hotbed of cell-cultured startups in the San Francisco Bay area. But while foreign nations have invested in technology companies on their soil, the United States government has put very little toward the market, Good Food Institute's Almy said.
“There is a really huge opportunity here for the United States to invest public research dollars into R&D,” she said on a panel. “The U.S. excels at innovation — we invented everything from the internet to the iPhone — and we are seeing a lot of U.S. dollars invested in clean meat.”
Almy said that it’s possible the U.S. could lose its lead in this space if the government doesn’t allocate public funds to help kickstart the market.
"There is a really huge opportunity here for the United States to invest public research dollars into R&D."
Policy director, Good Food Instute
“Israel is investing in a company... the Netherlands has invested in R&D, and Japan has invested in a company called Integriculture, and we’re expecting similar investments from Singapore and China.”
Allocating money already funneled toward agriculture research to further develop this market could help the U.S. maintain its head start and spur growth at the same time, Almy said.
“We know that when we invest a dollar in agricultural research in this country it yields $20 of economic activity across the board,” she said. “I think it’s reasonable to foresee that [cell-cultured meat] could be even more profitable.”