WASHINGTON, Jan 23 (Reuters) – Lab-grown meat, once the stuff of science fiction, could become a reality in some U.S. restaurants as early as this year.
Cultured meat company executives are optimistic that meat grown in large steel tanks could be on the menu within months after one company won the go-ahead from a key regulator. In a show of confidence, some of them eventually signed up top chefs like Argentina’s Francis Mallmann and Spain’s José Andrés to showcase the meats in their high-end restaurants.
Five managers told Reuters that cultured meat faces major obstacles in reaching its final destination – supermarket shelves. Companies need to raise more funding to increase production, which will allow them to offer beef steaks and chicken breasts at a more affordable price. Along the way, they must overcome a reluctance among some consumers to even try lab-grown meat.
Cultured meat is derived from a small sample of cells collected from livestock, then fed nutrients, grown in giant steel tanks called bioreactors, and transformed into something that looks and tastes like real meat.
Only one country, Singapore, has approved the product for retail sale to date. But the US is ready to follow. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said in November that the cultured meat product — chicken breast raised by California-based UPSIDE Foods — is safe for human consumption.
UPSIDE now hopes to bring its product to restaurants by 2023 and grocery stores by 2028, its executives told Reuters.
UPSIDE must still be inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and must have the agency sign off on its labels. A USDA FSIS spokeswoman declined to comment on its inspection schedule.
“HOUSE WITHOUT GUYS”
At UPSIDE’s facility in Emeryville, Calif., during a recent Reuters visit, workers in lab coats looked at touchscreens and watched giant vats of water mixed with nutrients. The meat is harvested and processed in what CEO Uma Valeti calls a “cut house,” where it’s inspected and tested.
During the visit, Reuters reporters were presented with a sample of UPSIDE’s chicken meat. It tasted like regular chicken when cooked, although it was a bit thinner and had a more uniform black color when raw.
UPSIDE worked with the FDA for four years before getting the agency’s green light in November, Valeti told Reuters.
“This is a turning point for the industry,” he said.
California-based cultured meat company GOOD Meat already has an application pending with the FDA, which has not been previously reported. Two other companies, Netherlands-based Mosa Meat and Israel-based Believer Meats, said they were in discussions with the agency, company executives told Reuters.
The FDA declined to provide details of pending cultured meat applications, but confirmed it has spoken to multiple companies.
Executives from UPSIDE, Mosa Meat, Believer Meats and GOOD Meat told Reuters that regulatory approval is the first hurdle to making cultured meat available to the general public.
The biggest challenge facing the companies, executives said, is growing a new supply chain for the massive bioreactors required to produce the nutrient mix to feed the cells and the large quantities of cultured meat.
Production is limited for now. According to the North American Meat Institute, a meat industry lobby group, the UPSIDE facility has the capacity to produce 400,000 pounds of cultured meat a year — a tiny fraction of the 106 billion pounds of conventional meat and poultry produced in the U.S. in 2021. .
If companies can’t get the funding they need to expand production, their products may never reach a price point that can compete with conventional meat, said Josh Tetrick, co-founder of GOOD Meat.
“Selling is different from overselling,” Tetrick said. “Until we as a company and other companies build large-scale infrastructure, it’s going to be very small scale.”
According to data collected by the Good Food Institute (GFI), a research group focused on alternatives to conventional meat, the cultured meat sector has so far attracted nearly $2 billion in global investment.
But for GOOD Meat, for example, it would take hundreds of millions of dollars to build bioreactors of the size needed to make meat at scale, Tetrick said.
Investment in the industry has so far been driven by venture capital firms and big food companies such as JBS SA ( JBSS3.SA ), Tyson Foods Inc ( TSN.N ) and Archer-Daniels-Midland Co ( ADM.N ).
JBS spokeswoman Nikki Richardson said the company’s investments in cultured meat “are consistent with our efforts to build a diversified global food portfolio that includes traditional, plant-based and alternative protein product offerings.”
Tyson did not respond to a request for comment. ADM declined to comment.
Jordan Bar Am, a partner at McKinsey & Company that focuses on alternative proteins, said much of that money has gone to the U.S., which is the No. 1 target for cultured meat producers because of its size and wealth.
Some companies are ramping up U.S. production even before their products are approved by regulators.
Believer Meats plans to build a facility in North Carolina in early 2024 that will be able to produce 22 million pounds of meat a year, CEO Nicole Johnson-Hoffman said. And GOOD Meat plans to grow its production in California and Singapore to 30 million pounds a year.
The European Union is working with Israel and other countries on regulatory frameworks for cultured meat, but has yet to approve the product for human consumption.
THE ‘ICK’ FACTOR
Cultured meat companies plan to communicate to consumers that their products are greener and more ethical than conventional cattle, while also trying to overcome aversion to their products among some buyers.
First, their product does not involve the slaughter of animals, which the companies hope will appeal to people who avoid meat for moral reasons. Company executives told Reuters that animals are not harmed in the cell harvesting process.
Another attraction is that raising meat in a steel container rather than in a field can reduce the environmental impact of livestock, which is responsible for 14.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions through feed production, deforestation, manure management and gut fermentation. – According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Although the sector only accounts for 1.4% of the meat market, plant-based meat companies have also appealed to consumers with ethical and environmental claims, according to the GFI report.
But cultured meat companies have the advantage of being able to claim that their products are real meat, Tetrick said.
“Probably the single biggest thing we’ve learned is that people really like meat. “They probably won’t eat much less than that,” he said.
Janet Tomiyama, a health psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies human diets, still excludes many people from cultured meat.
In a 2022 study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, he found that 35% of meat eaters and 55% of vegetarians would be extremely disgusted to try cultured meat.
Some people may perceive meat as “unnatural” and have a negative view of it before trying it, he said.
Tetrick, whose company sells its products to restaurants in Singapore, said companies need to be as clear as possible about how their products are made and whether the food is safe to attract hesitant buyers.
“You have to be transparent about it, but still in an appetizing way,” he said.
UPSIDE Foods and GOOD Meat plan to tantalize American palates by launching their products in high-end restaurants after first being approved, where consumers will tolerate a higher price point and feel good about their meat, they told Reuters.
UPSIDE hopes to have its products in grocery stores within the next three to five years, CEO Valeti said.
Major US supermarket chains did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.
Andrés, a restaurateur known for his work on global food security, told Reuters he wanted to sell farmed meat because of its environmental benefits.
“We can see from what is happening around us, in every country in the world, that our planet is in crisis,” he said.
Fellow chef Mallmann, known for cooking meats and other dishes over open flames, told Reuters he was also influenced by environmental considerations and saw the role of chefs in making products more gastronomically appealing and less scientific.
“We have to add romance to it,” he said.
Reporting by Leah Douglas Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Ross Colvin
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