By JACOB BUNGE
Feb. 1, 2016
Several startups are racing to be the first to fill U.S. consumers’ plates with laboratory-developed hamburgers and sausages that taste just as good as the kind from cattle and pigs.
Memphis Meats Inc., a San Francisco company founded by three scientists, aims in three to four years to be the first to sell meat grown from animal cells in steel tanks. Rivals including Mosa Meat and Modern Meadow Inc. also aim to bring such “cultured meat” to market in the next several years.
The competition highlights how these efforts have expanded since the 2013 taste test of a burger grown in a lab through a multiyear, $330,000 project funded by Google Inc. co-founder Sergey Brin and spearheaded by physiologist Mark Post . Reviews of the patty were mixed, but encouraged Mr. Post, who co-founded Netherlands-based Mosa Meat, to press on.
The startups’ lofty goal is to remake modern animal agriculture, which the United Nations estimates consumes one-third of the world’s grains, with about a quarter of all land used for grazing. The companies say that growing meat with cells and bioreactors—similar to fermentors used to brew beer—consumes a fraction of the nutrients, creates far less waste and avoids the need for antibiotics and additives commonly used in meat production.
“The meat industry knows their products aren’t sustainable,” said Memphis Meats Chief Executive Uma Valeti, a cardiologist and medical professor at the University of Minnesota. “We believe that in 20 years, a majority of meat sold in stores will be cultured.”
The potential payoff could be enormous—American spent $186 billion on meat and poultry in 2014—and this month, Memphis Meats plans to announce its strategy and about $2 million in funding from venture-capital firms including SOSV LLC and New Crop Capital.
Some in the meat industry are skeptical that consumers, many of whom are demanding “natural” or organic food made without additives or genetically modified ingredients, will embrace meat grown from animal cells. Representatives for major meat suppliers Tyson Foods Inc., Hormel Foods Corp. and Perdue Farms Inc. declined to comment, saying the technology was still too new.
But enthusiasm for new technology to satisfy consumers’ hunger for meat is high among venture-capital firms and Silicon Valley investors. Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates and Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams have invested in plant-based protein companies Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods Inc.
Memphis Meats grows meat by isolating cow and pig cells that have the capacity to renew themselves, and providing the cells with oxygen and nutrients such as sugars and minerals. These cells develop inside bioreactor tanks into skeletal muscle that can be harvested in between nine and 21 days, Mr. Valeti said.
While the source cells can be collected from animals without slaughtering them, Memphis Meats and others have relied on fetal bovine serum, drawn from unborn calves’ blood, to help start the process. Mr. Valeti said Memphis Meats will be able to replace the serum with a plant-based alternative in the near future, and Mr. Post says he also expects to be able to eliminate its use. Without the serum, there will be no need for antibiotics, according to the researchers.
Mosa Meat, which Mr. Post started with Maastricht University food technician Peter Verstrate, aims to sell cultured ground beef to high-end restaurants and specialty stores in four to five years, and is fielding interest from potential investors, Mr. Post said. Though the method’s efficiency and environmental aspects strike a chord with some consumers, “it will take time and early adopters” to catch on, he said.
Modern Meadow is working on cultured leather, which could be for sale in two to three years, according to Sarah Sclarsic, business director for the Brooklyn, N.Y., company. Meat, she said, “is a longer-term mission for us.”
The meat startups say their main challenge will be scaling up production while keeping costs low enough that cultured meat costs—and tastes—about the same as meat sliced from animals. Currently it costs about $18,000 to produce a pound of Memphis Meats’ ground beef, compared with about $4 a pound in U.S. grocery stores, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Eventually Memphis Meats and Mosa Meat aspire to sell more-complex products like steak, and make meat healthier by growing cells that contain less saturated fat.
Memphis Meats officials say they have had discussions with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration on how their food will be regulated. The FDA would likely review the cultured meat before the USDA Food Safety & Inspection Service would begin regulating the product and how it is processed, a USDA spokesman said.
Memphis Meats plans to eventually unveil its meat at restaurants and retailers, including several Memphis-area barbecue restaurants that are co-owned by William Clem, a tissue scientist who teamed up with Mr. Valeti and Nick Genovese, a stem cell biologist, to start the company.
Mr. Clem said he has been pitching the cultured meat idea to regular guests of his chain, Baby Jack’s BBQ, some of whom are skeptical and others interested.
‘We’ve got a road map to start small and introduce it to people…’
—William Clem, Baby Jack’s BBQ and Memphis Meats
“This is probably the toughest market you can imagine for something like this. It’s Memphis, Tenn., it’s all about tradition,” Mr. Clem said. “We’ve got a road map to start small and introduce it to people and get some feedback.” Memphis Meats has discussed its product with food service distributors U.S. Foods Inc. and Sysco Corp., he added.
Steve Lieber, global brand head of BurgerFi, a Florida-based chain that serves burgers from grass-fed beef on tables made from recycled milk jugs, said his company would consider using cultured beef for a seasonal special if it tasted as good as BurgerFi’s current meat.
“We do want to be a cutting-edge company in everything we do,” he said. But “right now for millennials, the tendency toward natural is ingrained.”