Why isn’t cell-based meat (also called clean or cultured meat) in stores yet? We’ve been hearing news stories about proof-of-concept cell-based burgers and other meats for years, so what’s the holdup? At the recent Good Food Conference, everyone was asking “How soon will cell-based meat be available commercially?” Answering that question requires understanding some of the barriers to producing clean meat products.
The first challenges are technical ones. The good news is that cell-based meat companies don’t have to invent the whole process from scratch – many problems have already been solved by the regenerative medicine industry. But cellular agriculture is a complex, multi-stage process, and some stages will require significant innovation. To give an idea of the complexities, here’s an overview of how it works:
- Obtain cell samples from the desired animal species. These cell lines must exhibit predicable behavior over many generations, and they must have a high capacity for proliferation.
- Add the cells to a stirred-tank bioreactor, along with a cell culture medium, to get the cells to proliferate. A cell culture medium is a liquid feedstock that provides the necessary nutrients for cell growth, like sugars, salts, and amino acids.
- Build cells into tissue using a different kind of bioreactor called a tissue perfusion bioreactor. The cell culture medium is adjusted to provide growth factors that tell the cells to differentiate into muscle and fat. Scaffolding must also be added to the meat to support the growing cell tissue and provide the porosity that allows the medium to reach each individual cell.
Cell-based meat companies are wrestling with getting all these steps right. What makes a good cell culture medium? What’s the best formulation for scaffolding – should it be edible so that it can remain inside the meat or should it be biodegradable? What’s the ideal mix of muscle and fat cells for cultured meat? How can we achieve the right texture and consistency in the finished product, like the flaky texture of fish?
Despite all these complexities, the technical problems are well on their way to solutions. Cell-based meat companies and their suppliers have food scientists, biochemists, and engineers on staff working on answers. Additional help is coming from government-sponsored and academic research.
Once the technical problems of cell-based meat production are solved, the next step is to scale up for commercial production and bring the cost down. The first lab-grown hamburger was cooked and eaten in 2013 and cost over $300,000 to make. In just five years, the cost has come down more than a thousand-fold, but cultured meat has not yet hit the target price point of traditional meat. Mark Post of Mosa Meat (and creator of that first $300,000 burger) estimates that 80 percent of the final product cost will be the feedstock, so a lot of attention is focused on how to produce it at commercial scale. The Good Food Conference speakers all agreed that the cost and scale problems will be resolved in the next few years. That leaves just one big remaining barrier: consumer acceptance.
Food has deep personal meaning for people. It’s part of our culture and core to our family traditions. Food decisions involve much more than just the cold hard facts. Most of us know that fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are good for our health, but that widely-available information hasn’t reduced demand for curly fries and glazed donuts. Getting people to change what they eat is notoriously difficult, and that problem has led to a food system that is unsustainable, unhealthy, and the cause of endless animal suffering.
Some of the consumer acceptance challenges are obvious – most meat-eaters won’t be interested in an alternative meat that doesn’t taste good, or that doesn’t have the familiar texture and cooking properties of the animal meats they’ve been eating since childhood. Cost and convenience play a big role too – most people won’t want to pay a price premium for cell-based meat, or drive 10 miles to a specialty store to find it.
Cell-based meat companies are innovating now to solve the problems of taste, familiarity, and cost. But, since no cultured meat products are on the market yet, we don’t know much about the other potential acceptance hurdles. Will people be put off by the “lab-grown” concept, perhaps seeing cultured meat as too processed or artificial? Will they have food safety concerns, as has happened with genetically modified foods? Will people be disappointed by meats that have small variations in flavor or texture from what they are used to eating? Will people see cell-based meats as an unnatural Frankenfood with a hefty ick factor?
These are all potential concerns, but the CEOs and investors in cell-based meat companies are betting that these concerns will disappear with the right products and the right messaging. Also, the long list of benefits from cell-based meats will help to improve consumer perceptions – these meats have the potential to be tastier, cleaner, cheaper, and better for you, and they will certainly be a win for the environment and for cows, pigs, chickens, and sea animals.
Cell-based meat is virtually identical to animal meat – it’s just made in a different way. The day is coming when cell-based meat simply goes by the name “meat” and occupies the majority of the protein counter at the grocery store. Pat Brown, CEO of Impossible Foods, thinks that cultured meats will completely replace animals in the food system by 2035, with cheaper and better products. Uma Valeti, CEO of Memphis Meats, recently said that cell-based meats will be available in stores and restaurants in much less than 10 years. In fact, Memphis Meats is already producing tasty cultured meats– their current challenge is to continue bringing the price down.
Some very recent news suggests that we don’t have too much longer to wait. The FDA and USDA have just agreed on a regulatory approach to cell-based meat products, an essential step towards commercial availability. And JUST Inc. is rumored to have a cell-based chicken product in the works for small-scale commercial launch by the end of 2018.
We can expect to see products like burgers, canned “fish”, and “chicken” nuggets first, followed by harder-to-produce whole cuts like steaks and sashimi. It’s likely that some companies will choose an artisanal positioning for their new products – and that will allow them to deliver products even sooner with premium pricing. The widespread presence of actual products in stores will help people see cell-based meat as a high-quality and acceptable protein. And as younger consumers grow up surrounded by cell-based meat options, they’ll wonder what all the fuss was about.
Our next blog post will cover the ways that qualitative user research and design thinking can be used to accelerate solutions for the consumer acceptance problem.