Companies Race To Get The First Cell-Based ‘Meat’ To Market

By Tara Duggan
San Francisco Chronicle

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Tara Duggan reports, “At least four Bay Area companies are determined that cell-based meat, which differs from plant-based alternatives like the Impossible Burger because it contains cells derived from animals, is the way of the future, and that the future is very near.”

San Francisco Chronicle

You could call it a meat race.

A select group of Bay Area and international companies is vying to get the first cell-based meat to market: that is, a meat product created entirely with in-vitro cells derived from chicken, fish, beef or pork, rather than from slaughtered animals.

Proponents say the technology promises to be a more sustainable, safe and humane way to feed the world’s booming population of meat eaters.

“I was thinking, ‘Are we walking on the moon?’ It was like a voyage of discovery,” Chris Jones says of his first taste of the chicken cells produced at San Francisco’s Just Inc. formerly called Hampton Creek, where he is vice president of product development. “It’s pure. It’s clean. It’s like if you took chicken to its most intense point.”

At Just’s Mission District headquarters, Jones, a former restaurant chef, is leading a team that is figuring out how to turn those chicken cells into a nugget that is aimed squarely at carnivores — and one that he hopes will debut in restaurants in 2019.

Yet there are some barriers: Not a single country in the world has approved the technology yet.

The science needs to develop to get production to scale, and perhaps most important, the public needs to be convinced of the idea.

But at least four Bay Area companies are determined that cell-based meat, which differs from plant-based alternatives like the Impossible Burger because it contains cells derived from animals, is the way of the future, and that the future is very near.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration announced that it would jointly oversee the regulation of cell-based meat — also known as cultured or lab-grown meat — which Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has said could begin as soon as 2019.

And while the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and other industry groups have urged the USDA not to allow such products to be called “beef” or “meat,” a few global food corporations have gotten on board.

Tyson Foods and Cargill have both invested in Memphis Meats, a Berkeley cell-based meat company that has raised over $20 million in funding.

With recent climate-related wildfires and a U.N. report warning of an ever-more escalated pace of climate change, Bay Area entrepreneurs say the meat revolution can’t happen soon enough.

Traditional animal-based agriculture is responsible for 14.5 percent of human-made global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, and many say it can’t meet rising demand.

At scale, cell-based meat would be responsible for only a fraction of the GHG emissions and land and water use, and require much less energy, according to a 2011 study from the University of Oxford and the University of Amsterdam.

“The world seems on the brink of environmental collapse, and this just has to happen faster than society can adapt,” says Mike Selden, CEO of Finless Foods in Emeryville, a cell-based seafood startup that has raised $3.5 million in funding. The company is developing a cell-based version of bluefin tuna, partly because the wild version is endangered and partly because they can sell it at a premium.
Bay Area cell-based meat companies are busy working out two main issues to move the technology forward: discovering which cell lines to use for their various beef, poultry, pork and seafood products, and finding the best media, what some call “nutrient broths,” in which to grow cells. (In medicine, in-vitro cells usually grow in fetal bovine serum. Cultured meat companies plan to use plant-based media instead, for cost and ethical reasons.)

At Just, which already has a supermarket line of plant-based mayo made with Canadian yellow pea and a liquid egg substitute made with mung bean protein, senior scientist Vítor Espírito Santo works in the cultured meat research lab.

An incubator is busily agitating beakers full of liquid in a circular motion.
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In one larger beaker, a ring of white matter swirls on top like sea foam on a wave.

The white stuff is meat cells — Santo won’t reveal which kind — that will continue to incubate over a few weeks. Then, they will be drained into a gray-pink paste that looks and acts similar to ground meat and can be used in products like sausages and patties.

Upstairs in Just’s kitchen, Jones and other chefs present a tiny round prototype of their chicken nugget. Within its light coating, the meat filling is beige with tiny pockets of air; it looks more like a cream puff than dense white muscle. The flavor is definitely chicken, and has some of the chew and juiciness of traditional poultry. But it doesn’t yet deliver the primal carnivorous satisfaction of chomping through meat fibers.

That could change as Just and other companies plan to use 3-D printed scaffolding to make beef steaks and fish fillets — the same technology used in tissue engineering — which Just CEO Josh Tetrick says could happen within a couple of years.

The industry is moving forward despite the fact that 78 percent of respondents in a 2014 Pew Research Study said they would not eat meat grown in a lab.

Marketing, including farm-to-table campaigns, could be one way to bring people in. The company recently announced that it will be partnering with Wagyu beef producer Toriyama in Japan to produce cultured beef from its prized cattle.

When people get more information, their attitude changes, says Steve Myrick, vice president of operations at Memphis Meats, pointing to more recent surveys.

“The more familiar people are, the more likely they are to want to eat it,” he said through email.

Once companies finalize their products, they’ll have to perform toxicology tests and follow other protocols for approval from the FDA. The USDA will then oversee labeling and production.

“We know our consumers want to feel safe and want to know where (the food) is coming from,” says Brian Spears, CEO and co-founder of New Age Meats, a startup that operates out of the San Francisco accelerator Indiebio.

To dispel some of the mystery, Spears plans to sell cell-based pork sausages alongside what he calls “other products of technology,” such as beer and bread. He envisions serving them first in a Bay Area brew pub with matching brewing vats for making beer and growing meat.

If that happens, it would be, as Jones said of his first taste of cell-based chicken, a leap into a different dimension.

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