Despite the rise in plant-based proteins, demand for meat isn’t going anywhere. In fact, even if they’ve committed to reducing their meat intake, most Americans (73%) still consider meat to be part of a healthy and balanced lifestyle.
But there’s an up-and-coming contender that may soon provide a more sustainable way for Americans to enjoy meat.
Compared to conventional meat, cultivated meat promises a number of benefits — it’s more environmentally-friendly to produce, reduces the need to raise and slaughter animals, and minimizes food safety issues. The main challenge, however, is getting it to market at a price consumers can afford. And, even then, would consumers buy it?
We asked Osnat Shostak, Head of Business Development at cultivated meat startup SuperMeat, to weigh in on how far cultivated meat has come, what consumers think, and what’s next for the industry.
Commercialization is the next frontier
How soon before we start to see cultured meat on grocery store shelves? It’s hard to say, especially with a few hurdles left to clear — the greatest of which, Shostak says, are scale and cost.
Lab-grown meat companies are steadily making progress toward scaling up production in a cost-effective way. But while costs have come down significantly — the price of a cell-cultured burger has come down from $333,000 in 2013 to $9.80 now, and cultivated chicken breast dropped from $18 to $7.70 per pound in six months’ time — it’s still well above what consumers are used to paying for conventional meat. It could be some time yet before cultured meat is considered an affordable alternative.
“Cultivated meat is taking its first industrial steps,” Shostak says, “and it will require a joint effort by multiple industries to establish manufacturing settings that will have the capacity to meet the global demand for meat. This will be a gradual process until it will achieve economies of scale comparable to traditional meat players.”
Cultured meat products are also still awaiting approval for sale in the US. The FDA and USDA plan to jointly oversee production, with cell collection, growth, and differentiation falling under the FDA and harvest, processing, packaging, and labeling under the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
Unlike plant-based products, cultured meat is made with primary animal cells, which can be grown into muscle and fat cells to produce a taste and texture that’s said to be almost indistinguishable from conventional meat.
Despite this, not everyone’s excited about cultivated meat — in recent studies, 40% of Americans said they weren’t willing to try cultivated meat, and 43% of UK consumers felt the same way. Some UK consumers expressed concerns about food safety, found cultured meat unappealing, or simply preferred traditional meat.
But if given the opportunity to sample cultivated meat, without eating the cost, would they change their minds?
SuperMeat recently conducted a consumer test to find out if consumers would choose cultivated meat over conventional meat. Out of 100 consumers, more than 70% chose cultivated, citing a desire to reduce meat consumption, environmental and ethical concerns, and curiosity. Many of these consumers said they wouldn’t have been able to distinguish it from traditional meat.
“Even today, when cultivated meat is not yet commercialized, consumers who are hesitant to try it represent a minority of the population,” Shostak says. “Once regulatory approvals have been granted and cultivated meat companies have demonstrated that they can meet the highest standards of food safety and quality control, we believe that the majority of [consumer] concerns will be alleviated.”
Going forward, transparency and traceability will be key for the industry in building consumer trust. Companies in the game will need to provide more information on raw materials, production processes, and the benefits of cultured meat.
That’s why SuperMeat opened the world’s first production-to-fork facility in Israel. “In our facility, consumers can watch the entire production process as they eat their meal,” Shostak says, “which is essentially the same fermentation process used in the food industry for decades for producing yeast, yogurt, and beer.”
Same taste, more possibilities
Cultivated meat, Shostak says, “offers the same nutritional profile as conventional meat, while drastically reducing contamination risks and eliminating antibiotic usage.” The closed, controlled production environment minimizes the risk of external factors like contaminants and inclement weather. This helps extend shelf life and create consistency in product quality.
Production of cultivated meat also requires “considerably less water, land, and energy than conventional meat production,” Shostak adds, “and it reduces agriculture-related pollution.” It doesn’t produce the kind of by-products typical of the conventional process — like organs, bones, and feathers — which may be disposed of into the environment.
The production process isn’t limited to beef, chicken, and other common meats either. “In a cultivated meat plant,” Shostak explains, “the same process can be applied to grow a variety of species.” One company is even working on cultivating exotic meats like tiger, lion, and zebra.
And plants can shift between those species at a moment’s notice. “With short and flexible manufacturing cycles, instant changes in supply can be implemented to meet demand within days,” Shostak says. Being able to quickly pivot to various meat products could present a significant competitive advantage for cultivated meat, once commercialized.
Technology, partnerships key to further growth
Many of the technologies used in cultivated meat production have never been applied to conventional meat manufacturing — “from renewable energy, waste management, circular economy, and more,” Shostak says. “For the first time, we’re able to draw from the incredible technological progress that is happening in almost every area to make our food and meat production better.”
As more companies venture into cultivated meat production, a variety of technological developments have emerged. Many are using various forms of “scaffolding,” including 3D printing, to provide cells with the plant-based nutrients they need to grow into 3D tissue, while others have eliminated scaffolding altogether to create a product that’s entirely meat-based.
For SuperMeat, new partnerships are key to further progress for the industry. The company’s most recent partnership with Ajinomoto, a leading global food and biotechnology company, “will combine the incredible expertise and progress Ajinomoto has achieved in manufacturing of amino acids and other media-related components with SuperMeat’s cultivated meat production platform,” Shostak says, “to create a commercially viable and sustainable supply chain solution for the cultivated meat industry.”
While there’s plenty of work ahead to lower production costs and create a scalable, affordable product, the industry is reaching new heights and introducing new possibilities to the future of meat.