Since it was founded in 2018, The Better Meat Co. has been using extrusion technology to turn pea and algae proteins, bamboo and psyllium into ingredients to enhance both meat and plant-based products.
But that's not all it's been doing. Today, Better Meat is unveiling its 13,000-square-foot mycoprotein fermentation plant, as well as a line of mycoprotein meat analog ingredients. The entire product line — and the huge factory, built in a former indoor moonbounce-type play park for children — has been developed under stealth since 2018. CEO Paul Shapiro said it is likely one of the world's largest whole biomass fermentation facilities, outside of the ones used by Quorn, the U.K.-based fermented meat analog powerhouse.
Shapiro said he has no idea how the demonstration-scale facility — a step down from the largest size of fermentation facility — and the company's secondary product line stayed under wraps for so long.
"I wonder that all the time," he said with a laugh.
While Better Meat is headquartered in Sacramento, California — about two hours northeast of the food tech hotspot in Silicon Valley — today's announcement is likely to ensure it much more attention in the future.
In the fermentation facility, Better Meat can produce thousands of pounds of mycoprotein meat substitute per month. The company calls its product Rhiza, from the Latin word for root. In just a matter of hours, cells in the huge fermentation tanks at the facility convert sorghum and potatoes into a dough-like version of Rhiza. The finished Rhiza is harvested, dewatered and dried. Then oil, flavoring and some color is added to make it a convincing animal-free substitute for chicken, beef or seafood.
Shapiro said he's long looked at fermentation as a better way to build the meat alternative industry — and to do it quickly and affordably. While plant-based meat has been growing consistently, today's industry has many challenges. There are large startup costs to create extruded plant protein, and many companies are working hard to get to price parity with meat from animals. Plant protein needs to be isolated and then extruded to create a usable texture. Some of the widely used plant-based proteins are made from common allergens like soy or wheat. Others, like pea, have off-tastes that can require flavoring solutions just to be palatable. And as of now, nobody has successfully marketed a plant-based whole cut of meat.
"If you try a pea protein extruded, it has a kind of meat-like texture. But when you try our product straight out of the fermenter, it is far meatier," Shapiro said. "And so through fermentation, not only do I think that with scale we will be able to compete on cost with chicken, but the texture already is just so much more advantageous.
"...That is a real benefit from fermentation that you just don't get when you're relying on plants," Shapiro continued. "When you're relying on microflora, you can control the parameters of the fermentation to create that type of a product."
In a press release, Better Meat said Rhiza is a complete protein with more protein than eggs, more iron than beef and more fiber than oats. It's free of common allergens, as well as clean label and non-GMO. It's low in fat, has no cholesterol, and has a naturally neutral flavor, according to the company.
"Through fermentation, not only do I think that with scale we will be able to compete on cost with chicken, but the texture already is just so much more advantageous."
CEO, The Better Meat Co.
With these new capabilities, Shapiro said Better Meat is currently interested in continuing as a B2B ingredient provider. While it is able to make analog versions of whole cuts of steak and chicken in the plant, the company's plan is to sell these to manufacturers looking to cut down on the meat in their products. Shapiro said that Better Meat's corporate mission centers on sustainability. By creating something that helps big manufacturers use less meat, he said, Better Meat's impact goes further than if it made its own CPG products.
However, Shapiro said food companies are always pivoting their focus, so there's no guarantee that Better Meat branded mycoprotein steaks won't someday appear on shelves. And, he said, a Sacramento restaurant that has assisted in plating the steaks for photos has expressed interest in serving some of the meat analog to patrons.
Rhiza will be used in The Plant Based Seafood Co.'s plant-based crab cakes, as well as in some of the company's other meat-free products later this year, CEO Monica Talbert said in the press release about the facility. While there are no other definitive partnerships Shapiro could talk about yet, he said items with Rhiza will likely start appearing on grocery shelves and restaurant menus later this year. Kevin Ladwig, president of Johnsonville Holdings-affiliated venture fund MSAB Capital, said in a release that the sausage company is excited about the possibilities of Rhiza.
The facility, which is full of fermentation equipment that looks like massive tanks and tubes, creates a lot of product in a relatively short amount of time. It's presided over by a large piece of artwork commissioned by Shapiro that features gods and goddesses of fermentation from different religious mythologies, including ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt and Sumeria, the Celts, Japan and Kenya — as well as a female scientist in a long lab coat, who the company has dubbed Fermentia. They surround the facility in the painting, which offers a blessing asking for their help so Better Meat can harness the power of fermentation to heal the world.
On a virtual tour of the facility, Shapiro pointed out the tanks that sterilize the sorghum and potato, which becomes the food for the fermentation process. That goes to fermentation tanks, where the product forms. A window on the tank showed the fermentation process actively foaming and bubbling. Because Better Meat uses liquid fermentation, the process can happen relatively quickly. Shapiro said his facility can turn around a fermentation tank in 10 hours, which is a fraction of the time it takes for other methods. The biggest downside of liquid fermentation versus other methods is the higher initial capital cost, Shapiro said.
This facility was funded by fundraising the company has already done. Better Meat has raised a total of $9.7 million to date, which it capped after finishing an $8.1 million seed round last summer.
Even with the new product line, Better Meat will continue making its original, "classic" line of plant-based meat product enhancers, Shapiro said. The company hopes to grow both offers. Eventually, he'd like to build the largest-scale fermentation facility — known as full scale — to further ramp up capacity, Shapiro said.
"Right now, the options for people who want some type of plant-protein formula are pea protein, soy protein or wheat protein, and those all have limitations," Shapiro said. "We are now offering a fourth ingredient that has just inherent superiority to those products, and so there's a strong demand from the limited number of people who have already tested this product."