Future food

The growth of lab-grown: How soon could cultured meat be a commercial reality?

Could 2021 be the year that lab-grown meat makes strides on the path to commercialisation? Ellen Daniel finds out. 

Almost 90 years ago, Winston Churchill predicted that by the 1980s we would be eating meat grown separately from animals.

“We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium,” the wartime prime minister said.

Although a few decades later than predicted, a growing awareness of both the environmental and ethical implications of meat production has sparked innovation in the food industry.

One such innovation comes in the form of lab-grown meat. Ten years ago, the concept of meat grown in a lab from animal cells still seemed futuristic and far-fetched. But now, cell-based – or lab-grown – meat is a reality, with many predicting that meat produced in this way may become a common part of our diet over the next few years.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that agriculture, forestry and other land use, including livestock farming, makes up 24% of greenhouse gas emissions. A 2019 report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services found that industrial agriculture and overfishing are the primary drivers behind the extinction crisis.

In this context, a growing number have an appetite for meat alternatives. Plant-based products from the likes of Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat have gained traction in recent years. But other companies are investing hundreds of millions on the possibility that animal-derived products that do not involve the rearing and killing of livestock will become mainstream.

The growth of lab-grown

Lab-grown meat is created using an in vitro cell culture of animal cells. Muscle cells are painlessly extracted from a living animal and cultivated in bioreactors in a lab, using a nutrient serum over four to six weeks.

This technique goes by many names, including cultured meat, cultivated meat, cell-based meat and slaughter-free meat and was first showcased back in 2013, when Maastricht University professor Mark Post successfully created a burger patty from lab-grown cells, which cost over £200,000 to make.

Since then, several cultured meat startups have emerged, with the likes of Memphis Meats, Eat Just and Finless Foods working to create lab-based alternatives to beef, chicken, pork and other animal products. All are hoping to leave a lasting impact on the food industry.

These startups have received considerable interest and investment from major players in the tech industry. In 2019, Future Meat Technologies successfully raised $14m for the construction of its manufacturing facilities, while Memphis Meat has scooped $180m in funding to date. Startups in this area have also attracted investment from the likes of Bill Gates and Richard Branson.

More recently, food-tech startup Aleph Farms announced that it had partnered with Mitsubishi Corporation to scale up production of its lab-grown steaks in Japan.

The growth of an industry

Another company vying to make cultured meat a commercial reality is Israel-based SuperMeat. In November 2020, the company launched the world’s first cultured chicken restaurant experience. Named The Chicken, the factory-side restaurant experience allows diners to observe the meat manufacturing process through a glass window while sampling cultured meat products.

Today we have over 100 companies worldwide working on cultured meat in one way or another.

“The field was essentially kick-started in 2013 when Professor Mark Post provided the world the first taste of cultured meat in a public BBC broadcast,” says Ido Savir, CEO of SuperMeat. “Fast forward several years and today we have over 100 companies worldwide working on cultured meat in one way or another. Many of the new companies are already focused on supporting the growing industry and not on the core of meat production, such as lowering the cost of the cell feed or improving fermentation design to optimise for efficiency, showing the maturity of the industry and the proximity to commercialisation and market entry.

“Additionally, many industry leaders from the food, animal feed, pharma, and more, have started collaborating with cultured meat companies aiming to develop infrastructure and products to support the future production and industry.”

According to a report by AT Kearney, over the next few years “major changes” in the global meat market will be driven by the development and industrialisation of biotechnological processes. The research firm predicts that by 2040, 60% of meat products eaten will either be lab-grown or replaced by plant-based meat alternatives.

Scientific improvements and changing mindsets could help create big business for the industry, with ResearchAndMarkets estimating the global cultured meat market to be worth $291.4m by 2027.

With the global population expected to reach nine billion by 2050, many are looking to alternative means of food production that can produce food on the scale needed to feed a burgeoning population, while offering a greener alternative to traditional agriculture.

In December 2020, the industry reached a landmark moment. The Singapore Food Agency approved the first lab-grown meat product, paving the way for commercialisation. Produced by US company Eat JUST, lab-grown “chicken bites” are now available to buy at a restaurant in Singapore.

SuperMeat lab-grown meat

Credit: Super Meat

The road to commercialisation

While cultured meat certainly holds huge promise, many hurdles remain on the road to commercialisation. The world’s demand for meat is projected to double by 2050, and bringing cultured meat to market at a scale and cost comparable with the traditional meat industry to meet consumer demand will be a challenge.

“You need to create the production capacity to serve millions of consumers,” Thijs Geijer, senior economist at the ING Economic Bureau, tells Verdict Magazine. “This has to be built from the ground up and needs a lot of investment in buildings, equipment and distribution. It’s currently unclear how much investment would be needed to build a production facility that is able to turn out products at a price comparable to conventional meat.”

You need to create the production capacity to serve millions of consumers

Startups have already been getting their lab-grown products into the hands and mouths of consumers, but this has so far been on a small scale where products are available in just a select number of restaurants at most. To achieve commercialisation, and get products onto supermarket shelves, production and supply chains must be ramped up considerably.

Commercialisation requires the deployment of largescale bioreactors, with an article in the Trends in Food Science and Technology journal noting that “the scale required for making cultured meat a commodity will be the largest ever for tissue engineering”. A 5,000-litre bioreactor is needed to produce just 1kg of protein from muscle cells.

This is not only crucial to competing with the traditional meat industry in terms of scale, but also in terms of cost. According to the Adam Smith Institute, the cost of producing a lab-grown burger fell from £250,000 to around £8 between 2013 and 2018. However, this remains high when compared with traditional meat production.

For instance, a prototype lab-grown chicken nugget produced by San Francisco startup Eat JUST costs $50 to produce. In comparison, A McDonald’s chicken nugget costs less than $0.10 per unit.

Cutting costs

“To reach wide distribution and scale, the cultured meat industry will need to work with the meat and food industry as well as many supportive industries around the manufacturing process of cultured meat as well as the distribution and marketing,” says Savir. “On the manufacturing level, working with supportive industries on aspects ranging from local and efficient sourcing of the cell feed components to providing sustainable energy and water to recycling and processing of the raw material. This is a huge opportunity to bring so many incredible advancements to meat and food production.”

Another key challenge relates to the cost of growth medium, the substance that supports cell growth, which can cost up to $400 per litre.

To address this, SuperMeat has developed a unique manufacturing process. The company grows chicken cells in a similar way to how yeast and blue-green algae superfood spirulina are grown, meaning existing infrastructure from the food and pharmaceutical industry can be repurposed, rather than needing to develop new manufacturing technologies.

Savir says that his company has also cut costs in other areas, such as reducing feed cost.

To reach wide distribution and scale, the cultured meat industry will need to work with the meat and food industry as well as many supportive industries.

“It amounts to 60-80% of the end cost of the product, similar to the relative cost effectiveness of the feed in the traditional meat manufacturing process,” he explains.

“The first step to reducing the cost of the feed is to remove all animal-derived ingredients which are expensive, not scalable as well as problematic to the end product on many levels.

“SuperMeat is excited to announce that it developed a feed which is 100% animal-derived ingredient free. The next steps for cost reduction of feed of the process would be optimisation of the components of feed by removing unneeded ingredients and transitioning to food grade and clean label components sourced more efficiently.”

Maintaining green credentials

Another important factor is ensuring that the green credentials of lab-grown meat remain robust. According to Trends in Food Science and Technology, when compared with conventionally produced beef, sheep, pork and poultry cultured meat has the potential to emit 78% to 96% less greenhouse gas emissions, use 99% less land, 82% to 96% less water, and 75 to 45% less energy.

But current manufacturing processes for cultured meat are energy-intensive, with companies needing to scale up production to reduce costs and lower emissions.

However, many in the industry are optimistic that lab-grown meat can make the jump to commercialisation. Research from the Good Food Institute predicts it’s “likely” that cultivated meat will achieve price parity with conventional meat production “once produced at industrial scale”.

Super Meat aims to launch in restaurants over the next two years, with the goal of opening its first commercial-scale plants in the next five years to scale up production and launch in the retail sector. The company predicts it will achieve cost parity with conventional chicken production over the next five to seven years.

SuperMeat lab-grown meat

Credit: Super Meat

Convincing consumers

Another factor that companies will need to contend with is consumer attitudes. Cultured meat is not yet widely available and the majority of consumers have not had the opportunity to try it, so predicting whether it will achieve widespread acceptance is challenging. According to a 2018 survey by data and analytics firm GlobalData, 38% of people around the world say they would never eat meat “produced in a lab without harming any animals”. However, another study from Faunanalytics found that two-thirds of US consumers were willing to try cultured meat.

In 2018, a House Bill was introduced in the US state of Missouri which outlawed the sale of lab-grown meat products labelled as meat on the grounds that it was “misrepresenting a product as meat that is not derived from harvested production livestock or poultry”.

“There is an important hurdle on the demand side,” says Geiger. “Cultured meat companies claim their product is identical to meat, but in the perception of consumers, it’s a novel product. In a survey commissioned by ING, only one in 12 Europeans indicate they would consider eating a lab-meat burger on a regular basis. Winning trust and getting consumers to try the product will be very important once products become available.”

There is an important hurdle on the demand side. Cultured meat companies claim their product is identical to meat, but in the perception of consumers it’s a novel product.

While the public may be largely unfamiliar with cultured meat products, Savir believes that the Covid-19 pandemic could play a part in their acceptance:

“The pandemic shed a bright light on the potential risks of engaging with animals for food consumption. Manufacturing meat via fermentation removes the animal from the equation and relieves the risk for zoonotic diseases as well as other food-borne illnesses.”

Regulatory hurdles

Another major challenge for the industry is regulation. Aside from the Singapore Food Agency (SFA), no other regulators have yet approved the sale of lab-grown meat products. The industry will now be eagerly awaiting to see if approvals are granted elsewhere.

ING Economic Bureau described the process of gaining regulatory approval as “costly” and said that it can take years, with startups in some regions competing with opposition from the meat industry.

“One of the main risks and question marks on this space was around the concern that regulatory approval for cultured meat would be very long and expensive as in the pharma industry and would significantly delay and endanger the go-to-market path,” says Savir.

“These fears have been dispelled recently, when the SFA announced that they approved Eat Just’s cultured chicken bites for sale in Singapore. This is a monumental earthquake for the cultured meat industry especially coming from a sophisticated and respected regulatory agency as SFA, signalling to the world that after a thorough in-depth process they consider and approve of cultured meat production and products as safe for consumption. The framework that the SFA put in place will help facilitate and accelerate other regulatory agencies to join and also approve cultured meat products in their respective regions.”

One of the main risks and question marks on this space was around the concern that regulatory approval for cultured meat would be very long and expensive.

Despite the remaining challenges, Savir believes that within the next five to ten years there will be a “significant” distribution of cultured meat products worldwide. In order to achieve this, he believes that partnerships with the wider food industry are key.

“On the processing, distribution and marketing level, we believe the best route to market should be in partnerships with the meat and food industry," he says. "They know the consumer needs and tastes and have incredible infrastructure to supply them around the world. Like many other cultured meat companies around the world, we aim to supply and work together with meat companies to introduce cultured meat products to the world.”