WASHINGTON, Jan. 23 (Reuters) – Once the stuff of science fiction, lab-grown meat could become a reality in some restaurants across the United States as early as this year.
Executives at cultured meat companies are optimistic that meat grown in huge steel drums could be on the menu within months after a company gets the go-ahead from a major regulator. As a show of confidence, some of them have enlisted high-end chefs like Argentinian Francis Mallmann and Spaniard José Andrés to eventually showcase the meat in their high-end eateries.
But to reach its ultimate destination – supermarket shelves – cultured meat faces major obstacles, five executives told Reuters. Companies need to raise more money to increase production, which will allow them to offer their steaks and chicken breasts at a more affordable price. Along the way, they must overcome the reluctance of some consumers to even try home-grown meat.
Cultured meat comes from a small sample of cells collected from livestock, which are then given nutrients, grown in huge steel vessels called bioreactors, and processed into something that looks and tastes like a real piece of meat.
Only one country, Singapore, has so far approved the product for retail. But the United States is ready to follow. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said in November that a cultured meat product — a chicken breast grown by California-based UPSIDE Foods — is safe for human consumption.
UPSIDE now hopes to have its product in restaurants as early as 2023 and in supermarkets by 2028, the executives told Reuters.
UPSIDE must still be inspected by the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the United States Department of Agriculture and endorsed on labels by the agency. A USDA FSIS spokesperson declined to comment on the inspection timeline.
At the UPSIDE facility in Emeryville, Calif., during a recent Reuters visit, workers dressed in lab coats were seen glancing over touchscreens, watching giant vats of water mixed with nutrients. Meat is harvested and processed in a space that CEO Uma Valeti calls the “slaughterless house,” where it is inspected and tested.
Reuters reporters were served a piece of chicken from UPSIDE during the visit. It tasted just like conventional chicken when cooked, although it was slightly thinner and had a more uniform brown color when raw.
UPSIDE worked with the FDA for four years before getting the green light in November, Valeti told Reuters.
“It’s 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 are in talks with the agency, company executives told Reuters.
The FDA declined to provide details of pending cultured meat applications, but confirmed it is in talks with several companies.
Regulatory approval is just the first hurdle in making cultured meat accessible to a broad range of consumers, executives from UPSIDE, Mosa Meat, Believer Meats and GOOD Meat told Reuters.
The biggest challenge companies face is expanding the burgeoning supply chain for the nutrient mix to feed cells and for the massive bioreactors needed to produce large volumes of cultured meat, executives said.
Production is currently limited. UPSIDE’s facility has the capacity to produce 400,000 pounds of cultured meat per year — a small fraction of the 106 billion pounds of conventional meat and poultry produced in the United States by 2021, according to the North American Meat Institute, a meat industry lobby group. .
If the companies can’t get the resources needed to scale production, their product may never reach a price point where it can compete with conventional meat, said GOOD Meat co-founder Josh Tetrick.
“Selling is different from selling a lot,” Tetrick said. “Until we as a company and other companies build large-scale infrastructure, this will be very small-scale.”
The cultured meat industry has so far raised nearly $2 billion in investment worldwide, according to data collected by the Good Food Institute (GFI), a research group focused on alternatives to conventional meat.
But it will cost GOOD Meat, for example, hundreds of millions of dollars to build bioreactors of the size needed to make its meat at scale, Tetrick said.
Investments in the industry have so far been led by venture capital firms and major food companies such as JBS SA (JBSS3.SA), Tyson Foods Inc (TSN.N) and Archer-Daniels-Midland Co (ADM.N).
JBS spokesperson Nikki Richardson said the company’s investments in cultured meat are “consistent with our efforts to build a diversified global food portfolio of traditional, plant-based and alternative protein products.”
Tyson did not respond to a request for comment. ADM declined to comment.
Much of that money has gone to the United States, the No. 1 target for meat producers because of its size and wealth, said Jordan Bar Am, a partner at McKinsey & Company who focuses on alternative proteins.
Some companies are scaling up US production even before their products are approved by regulators.
Believer Meats plans to build a facility in North Carolina, which will begin operation in early 2024, that could produce 22 million pounds of meat annually, CEO Nicole Johnson-Hoffman said. And GOOD Meat has plans to expand production in California and Singapore to as much as 30 million pounds per year.
The European Union is also working with Israel and other countries on regulatory frameworks for cultured meat, but has not yet approved a product for human consumption.
THE “ICK” FACTOR
Cultured meat companies plan to pitch to consumers that their product is greener and more ethical than conventional livestock while trying to overcome some customers’ aversion to their product.
First, their product does not involve animal slaughter, which companies hope will make the product attractive to people who avoid meat for moral reasons. Animals remain unharmed during the cell collection process, company executives told Reuters.
Another benefit is that growing meat in a steel drum instead of a field could reduce the environmental impact of livestock, which is responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions from feed production, deforestation , manure management and enteric fermentation. – according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
Plant-based meat companies have also appealed to consumers with moral and environmental claims, even though the industry has captured just 1.4% of the meat market, according to a GFI report.
But cultured meat companies have the advantage of being able to claim their product is real meat, Tetrick said.
“Probably the most important thing we’ve learned is that people really like meat. They probably won’t eat much less of it,’ he said.
Still, many people are grossed out by cultured meat, said Janet Tomiyama, a health psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies human diets.
In a 2022 study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, she found that 35% of meat eaters and 55% of vegetarians would be too disgusted to try cultured meat.
Some people may view the meat as “unnatural” and have a negative attitude toward it before they even try it, she said.
To attract hesitant shoppers, companies need to be as clear as possible about how their product is made and that it’s safe to eat, said Tetrick, whose company has sold its product in Singapore restaurants.
“You have to be transparent about it, but in a way that’s still palatable,” he said.
UPSIDE Foods and GOOD Meat plan to tantalize American taste buds by first releasing their products in high-end restaurants after approval, they told Reuters, betting that consumers there will tolerate a higher price and make a good first impression of their will have meat.
UPSIDE hopes to get its products to supermarkets in the next three to five years, CEO Valeti said.
Major US supermarket chains did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comment.
Restaurateur Andrés, known for his work on global food security, told Reuters he wants to sell cultured meat for its environmental benefits.
“We can see from what’s happening all around us, in every country around the world, that our planet is in crisis,” he said.
Fellow chef Mallmann, known for preparing meats and other foods over an open fire, told Reuters he is also influenced by environmental concerns and sees the role of chefs in making the product 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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