This article is part of a series on Disruptors to Watch in the Food Industry. You can read the full series, starting here
Want "sustainable" meat? Grow your own.
Plant-based meat analogues may be better and more like the real thing than ever, but substituting plants for animals is an old story. Companies like Memphis Meats are taking the next step: bypassing plants and animals.
Memphis is the most prominent, from the standpoint of development and capitalization, of the “lab meat” companies. They prefer the term “cell-based meat.” The point is that, unlike plant-based products like those of Impossible Foods, their product is literally meat, grown from cultured cells and indistinguishable from meat harvested from animals.
There are several other companies in that space, but Memphis is arguably the leader. Notably, its investors include Tyson Foods and Cargill, which offers great potential resources for production and distribution once the process is fully commercialized.
For now, Memphis Meats’ primary focus is on product development, says Steve Myrick, vice president of operations. There are currently 38 employees, most of them scientists and engineers working on product development and production.
“We recently opened our R&D facility, which houses our R&D space and our kitchen, and we believe it’s the largest and most advanced cell-based meat facility in the world,” Myrick says.
Memphis Meats was founded in 2015 by Uma Valeti (now CEO), a cardiologist who worked at the Mayo Clinic, and Nicholas Genovese (now chief science officer), a biochemist and stem-cell researcher. Meat-like substances had been grown in labs for decades, but Valeti and Genovese were the first to come up with something that could pass as the real thing. Now they’re aiming at the whole universe of protein derived from animals: beef, pork, chicken, duck and seafood, both ground and whole-muscle.
“We’ve developed a platform that is ‘multi-animal,’ so it’s designed to produce any type of meat in many textures and formats,” Myrick says. “We don’t have to re-invent the wheel if we want to produce chicken this week and beef next week.”
One of the biggest challenges for Memphis Meats is to disassociate meat from animals in the minds of consumers while convincing them there’s no difference in taste.
“Studies show that roughly two-thirds of Americans would eat cell-based meat, and that the more familiar consumers are with our process, the more enthusiastic they become,” he says. “That means that our job, from a communications perspective, is to make sure we are educating consumers about what we’re doing, how we’re doing it and why we’re doing it.”
The “why” part is perhaps the most significant. Valeti, Genovese and the rest of Memphis Meats’ leadership are on a mission to make harvesting meat from animals a thing of the past. Both founders became vegetarians after unpleasant youthful experiences with animal slaughter. Before his involvement with Memphis Meats, Genovese worked under a fellowship from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Memphis Meats officials point out that animals consume many calories for each one they yield in meat, and that the process is wasteful in other ways. They claim that one cell biopsy can yield the equivalent of meat from up to 10,000 cows. Right now, a hamburger made from the Memphis Meats process costs thousands of dollars, but that will change once the process is finalized and brought up to scale, Myrick says.
“We believe that at scale our process will require fewer natural resource inputs than conventionally produced meat,” he says. “While this makes us believe that we can provide significant benefits for the environment, we also believe that it will translate into production efficiency as well, and ultimately that will bear out in the costs. Our vision is to provide cell-based meat to everybody, everywhere, and we know that we need to be extremely affordable to succeed as this goal.”