Cultured Meat Is So Close You Can Almost Taste It

March 28, 2022
Some companies claimed 2022 would be the year lab-grown meat becomes available for public consumption, but many are wondering if this be the year.

Rumor has it that a cultured seafood product – not a cultured meat – will likely be the first factory-grown animal food product approved for sale in the U.S., probably by the end of this year.

If indeed the petitioner is Blue Nalu, as is rumored, the product apparently will be a sushi-grade piece of bluefin tuna – a prized, pricey and borderline endangered species. In a mercenary sense, that trio of attributes trumps even the animal welfare, environmental and food safety arguments for lab-grown meats.

Approval from the Japanese and possibly South Korean governments should not be far behind, as San Diego-based Blue Nalu has a collaboration with Food & Life Cos. The Japanese company both manufactures seafood products and operates more than 1,000 sushi restaurants in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and China. What an enthusiastic, numerous and far-flung base on which to launch lab-grown fish.

However, they won't be the first restaurants to serve cultivated animal products. Early last year, the trendy "1880" restaurant in Singapore was serving three dishes featuring cultured chicken nuggets from American firm Eat Just and its subsidiary Good Meat. The nuggets were about 75% cultured chicken, the rest plant-based ingredients, but it made a splash, and continues to be served at the JW Marriott in that country.

About the same time over in Israel, SuperMeat set up its own temporary restaurant to sample (not sell) its cultured chicken. (Singapore has approved only Good Meat's formulation and application; Israel hasn't approved any product yet.)

That's how far the technology of cultured animal meats has come in a very short time.

Maybe two years ago, the concept seemed as far off as self-driving cars (wait, we have those, don't we?). But the two years of the pandemic – a down time for most product development -- saw tremendous advances in cultured cell technology. And in the number of start-ups pursuing it (there are more than 70 across the globe).

Nearly all the companies have created prototypes and staged public tastings. Famous chefs have sampled products and given thumbs up, most saying they couldn't tell the difference from farm-grown meats. Israel's then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu tasted an Aleph Farms steak in late 2020. A year earlier, Aleph grew cultured beef in the International Space Station. (That's not entirely a publicity stunt; "fresh" meat is a critical deficiency in the diets of long-term astronauts, and growing steaks from cells would be most efficient.)

Prices have declined to the point that these products are competitive – although not on parity – with animal products. Pioneer Mosa Meat reportedly spent $280,000 to create the first cultured beef burger in 2013. Israel's Future Meat Technologies claims to have reduced the production cost of a 4-oz. cultured (but partially plant-based) chicken breast to $7.50, and beef for less than $16 per pound.

Rumor has it that a cultured seafood product, Blue Nalu, will likely be the first factory-grown animal food product approved for sale in the U.S., probably by the end of this year.

There's been a lot of recent talk about hybrid products, ones that are part cultured meat and part plant-based protein. That's what those Eat Just/Good Meat chicken nuggets in Singapore were. Just last month, Future Meat Technologies announced a partnership with Thailand's Charoen Pokphand Foods Public Co., which launched its own plant-based products last year, to develop hybrid products for the Asian market. Maybe this is a way to lower the price.

And despite the unfamiliar names, these companies also have paired up with or have as investors some leading animal protein companies. Tyson, Cargill, JBS, Thai Union have bought in to varying degrees, and the sexy topic also has attracted high-profile investors like Leonardo DiCaprio, Bill Gates and Richard Branson.

"We expect our product to be a few tens of percent more expensive for the consumer than slaughtered meat when reaching the market. We will actually lose money at this stage," Didier Toubia, co-founder and CEO of Aleph Farms, told Reuters news service in December. However, Aleph should break even before it reaches the price levels of conventional meat production, he continued, as it will be able to cut costs faster than companies developing plant-based analogues.

Also, the leaders in this category have built or are building plants that are capable of meeting at least the initially projected market demand for cultured versions of beef, poultry, pork and seafood.

In many ways, all they need are regulatory approvals.

"In 2022, the cultured meat industry should obtain regulatory approvals in the United States, Europe and Israel," predicts Rahim Rajwani, a venture capitalist and strategic advisor to Atelier Meats, which lists headquarters in New Jersey (presumably New Brunswick, since it has a partnership with Rutgers University) and Vancouver. The company claims it can make steak, pork and chicken.

Those are the leading geographies for approval as well as development of cultured animal products – although six continents have companies developing cultured products. Even South Africa has one, Mzansi Meat. In South America, Argentina is home to Cell Farm Food Tech. And Brazil's JBS SA, which claims to be the biggest meat company in the world, spent $100 million late last year to acquire BioTech Foods, a Spanish developer of cultivated protein. Initially, the deep pockets were needed to fund a new production plant for BioTech in Spain, but JBS plans to build a research and development center for cultivated protein in Brazil.

The technology began in a Netherlands university in the early 2000s, and that research spawned companies Mosa Meat and Meatable. Israeli government and university officials have been very supportive of the technology, and the country is home to Aleph Farms, Future Meat Technologies, SuperMeat and newcomer Wanda Fish Technologies. But the U.S. has the most companies, developing cultured beef, pork, several kinds of poultry and several varieties of seafood.

Populous countries with high-income carnivores and little land and domestic meat production see it as a way to become less reliant on imported meats. For those reasons, Singapore, Israel and also Japan are rabidly interested.

It also may be becoming apparent that, while early efforts in the space focus on common meats, the higher production costs may be more justified by creating high-end or unusual meats such as elk, bison, Wagyu beef, even foie gras. As mentioned earlier, BlueNalu is pursuing bluefin tuna; Shiok Meats of Singapore is focusing on crustaceans, primarily lobster. Avant Meats is fishing for grouper.

"2021 was a fantastic year for cultivated meat," Rajwani continues. "Following the regulatory approval of lab-grown chicken in Singapore, about $500 million was invested in the cultured meat industry last year. This money will result in technological advancements and innovations contributing to mass meat production and making it possible to compete commercially with agricultural meat."

Awaiting approval

In the U.S., the FDA and USDA have created what some would call a logical, what others would call a complicated, regulatory framework. FDA will oversee cell collection, cell banks and cell growth and differentiation, steps akin to what they regulate in the pharmaceutical world. A handoff to USDA will occur during the cell harvest stage. USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service will then oversee the production and labeling of food products as they become replicas of livestock and poultry.

Upside Foods last November opened its Engineering, Production and Innovation Center (EPIC) in Emeryville, Calif.

"USDA and FDA are confident that this regulatory framework can be successfully implemented and assure the safety of these products," read a joint announcement back in 2019, when the process was unveiled. Seafood, somewhat oddly, has always been solely the FDA's domain, and that may be why a seafood product could be the first cultured animal product approved.

"The FDA is engaged in discussion with multiple firms for various types of cultured cell food products, including seafood," an FDA spokesperson told us. She wouldn't confirm BlueNalu is in the mix "and we cannot predict if and when any of them will be completed."

Across the globe, these product developers have created groups to advocate for them, for both marketing and regulation. In August 2019, five American firms formed the Alliance for Meat, Poultry & Seafood Innovation (AMPS Innovation). In December 2021, a group of 13 European and Israeli companies established Cellular Agriculture Europe, a Belgium-based association.

Facilities, technologies

Several companies are gearing up to make production quantities of their products. BlueNalu is completing a 40,000-sq.-ft. pilot facility in San Diego "that enables limited volumes under GMP conditions and global best practices in food safety," a spokesperson told us. "After the pilot phase, we will expand our capabilities and capacity … and subsequently introduce additional species and new forms and packaging options."

Just after Hannukah (last December), Israel's Future Meat Technologies raised $347 million in investments, the largest single fundraising to date for a company in the cultivated meat space, in part to build a U.S. plant. The company is "in the middle of a long process of selecting a site in the U.S.," said a spokesperson. As a result, "We have had several visits to our Israeli facility, including Ned Lamont, the governor of Connecticut, who loved our cultivated chicken breast."

This is an artist's rendering of what MeaTech 3D's Belgium pilot plant should look like when finished in 2023. Nice and clean and with very little labor.

Israel's MeaTech 3D Ltd. said its Belgian subsidiary, Peace of Meat B.V., is building a 21,530-sq.-ft. pilot plant in Belgium to make "avian" products. MeaTech maintains facilities in Rehovot, Israel, and Antwerp, Belgium, and is in the process of finding a site in California.

Pioneer Memphis Meats, which has rebranded itself as Upside Foods, last November opened its Engineering, Production and Innovation Center (EPIC), claiming the 53,000 sq. ft. facility in Emeryville, Calif., is the most advanced cultivated meat production facility in the world. It is designed to produce any species of meat, poultry or seafood, in both ground and whole-cut formats. The plant will use custom-made, patented cultivators to produce over 50,000 lbs. of finished product, with a future capacity of over 400,000 lbs. per year. At full capacity, EPIC will employ approximately 50.

Especially as these companies become more public, differences in the technologies become apparent. Most are still pursuing the concept of taking cells from live animals and culturing them in a growth medium until they replicate themselves into larger samples of their species.

Some use muscle-meat cells from the original animal; some focus on stem cells, which can be manipulated into forming particular muscles or cuts of meat.

Future Meat "relies on the spontaneous immortalization of fibroblasts that are easy to obtain from multiple animal species and grow different types of cultured meat in the same production facility." Fibroblasts are the most common type of cell found in connective tissue. They secrete collagen proteins that are used to maintain a structural framework for many tissues.

Some graft the cells onto "scaffolding" so they can be manipulated into desired shapes. Aleph Farms has used 3D printing to extrude meat cells onto a scaffold. Matrix Food Technologies does not make cultured meats but wants to be the premier supplier of these "plant-based, edible nanofiber scaffolds and micro-carriers for the cultured meat industry."

SuperMeat says, "Our avian stem cell platform [enables us] to grow muscle, fat and connective tissue all together in a tissue-like structure in an efficient and scalable way … without any carrier or scaffolding."

Where the goal is animal proteins, not animal tissue, fermentation can create such products as milk, honey, eggs, cheese and gelatin.

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