Your next burger or chicken taco may soon come from a lab, not a farm.
Lab-grown meat, or cultured meat, is gaining popularity and shelf space in American grocery stores.
And more brands are on their way.
In March, San Francisco-based Memphis Meats announced it had developed the first lab-grown chicken strips in the country. The chicken strips join the brand’s lab-grown meatballs, which they announced in February 2016.
How is meat grown?
Like the meatballs, the chicken strips are made with harvested animal cells.
Memphis Meats must use fetal serum, which is extracted from unborn calves and chicks. Proteins are added to the cells to promote tissue growth.
A structural support, much like a scaffold, is used to support the growth of the meat.
In many cases, the structural support is edible so the company doesn’t have to remove it before a consumer can eat it.
Skeptical carnivores might be surprised to find that the product is quite similar to animal meat.
“We are developing a new way to produce the delicious meat we’ve always enjoyed, without the need to feed, breed, and slaughter actual animals,” says Memphis Meats’ co-founder and chief executive officer, Dr. Uma Valeti. “We think this is an incredible business opportunity to transform a global industry that is nearing a trillion dollars, and at the same time improve the world.”
And even though Memphis Meats’ products aren’t entirely animal-free, in the future, Valeti says the company hopes that will change.
“Our goal is to entirely remove the animal from the meat production process,” he says.
For now, the cost of production is prohibitive for the mainstream consumer.
In 2016, Memphis Meats told The Wall Street Journal it estimates one pound of chicken costs about $9,000 to produce.
Compare that to the national average for a pound of conventionally raised chicken, which is slightly more than $3 per pound, so Memphis Meats has a lot of work to do if they want their lab-grown product to compete dollar for dollar.
“We will be working over the next few years to lower the cost of production,” Valeti says. “We’re on a cost curve that is decreasing faster than we had imagined.”
The company is targeting a 2021 launch date for consumer products.
Plant-based meat alternatives
Lab-grown meats aren’t the only new beefy game on the scene.
The rise of “bloody” vegetable burgers is giving traditional veggie burgers a run for their money.
Instead of patties of mushed-up beans, grains, and vegetables, companies are developing plant-based burgers that are virtually indistinguishable from their cow counterparts in look, aroma, and taste.
The first one of these meat-like veggie burgers is available now.
The Beyond Burger from Beyond Meat is made from 100 percent plant proteins and it packs in 20 grams of protein per 4-ounce serving. That’s one gram more than a traditional beef patty of the same size.
The patties are also GMO-free, soy-free, and gluten-free, and have almost half the saturated fat of traditional beef.
Many grocery stores will even place the new plant-based patties right alongside traditional patties to persuade consumers to pick up the new product.
“An animal is doing the same thing,” Ethan Brown, chief executive officer of Beyond Meat, explained. “They’re taking an enormous amount of plant matter, they’re running it through the digestive system, they’re converting that into muscle or meat. We’re taking plant matter as well, we’re picking the amino acids, fats, minerals, and of course the water, and we’re assembling those in the same architecture to the extent that we can that’s present in meat. My argument is that this really is meat. It’s just meat that’s coming directly from plants, instead of being run through an animal.”
Brown said it’s just a different route along the same path.
The demand for alternative proteins
Americans aren’t giving up their meat anytime soon.
Last year, the average American ate 90 pounds of chicken and 55 pounds of beef.
The meat industry in the United States brings in more than $864 billion a year and employs 6.2 million people.
Demand for alternative proteins, however, may still shake up the industry.
According to Lux Research, the demand for alternative proteins will double by 2024.
That means the global supply chain will need to keep up with the growing demand, and the current animal options may be unable to outpace the animal-free alternatives.
Consumers are also becoming more aware of the global impact traditional animal meats can have.
Limited resources like water and land may become tapped out as supply grows. Products that don’t need as much water or land may gain the upper hand in the protein fight.
But are Americans ready?
The answer is absolutely “Yes,” if you ask Ethan Brown. “The uptick in consumer interest is unreal. When I started the business in 2009, it was much more of a push where we had to do a lot of convincing to consumers,” he said.
It may be a matter of education.
“I think what’s happening is there’s just a large number of Americans that are hearing from multiple sources the benefits of consuming plant-based proteins,” Brown said. “All of these studies are continually coming at people, and then you have an increasing awareness of the role of animal protein in global warming, climate change, and that public psyche continues to occur. We benefit from that.”
Valeti says the time for his company’s cultured meat is now.
“In recent polls, a majority of consumers say that they will eat clean meat. We’ve also seen some clear early adopter segments that are ready to buy our products as soon as possible, even at a price premium,” he said. “This is all before we’ve had a meaningful chance to educate consumers on the benefits of clean meat. So, we are certain that the winds are blowing in our favor.”