How would consumers respond to meat made in a lab?
Would you eat meat grown in a petri dish? That’s the question I asked friends on Facebook recently, and while the majority expressed caution, many were curious and excited about the new advancement in food technology.
Here’s a sampling of the responses I received to my impromptu poll:
“I would have to try it to compare! I think if it’s the same texture and taste as a real meat and can be produced at a cost effective price, it may be successful.”
“Isn’t this the same crowd who wants organic, all-natural, free-range meat? They’re okay with completely synthetic meat? Am I the only one confused on this?”
“It amazes me that people will boycott red meat because they think it has too many hormones and is unsafe to eat, but they will eat something that is made 100 percent in a lab! Crazy!”
“Our bodies will not recognize laboratory foods. Your taste buds won’t know the difference but your hormones will. The frightening part to this is that it can take years for these problems to manifest and present symptoms.”
“Sure I would! I love taste panels and sample day at the grocery store, and my parents always taught me that I had to try food before I decided if I like it or not. However, I do prefer my foods as fresh and close to the source as possible.”
“I support science and the ability to help the world at large have more protein. As long as they name it so folks know exactly what it is, then I would be accepting of the processing. I won’t say I would eat it, but then again, I’m not starving or malnourished.”
“I worry that the meat industry will have the same battle that lard did in the 1950s with shortening.”
While my poll was hardly scientific, it gives an indication of what the general public thinks about lab meats. In a more rigorous poll conducted by Michigan State University, 2,100 Americans were asked, “How likely would you be to purchase foods that look and taste identical to meat, but are based on ingredients that are produced artificially?”
The survey results indicated that one-third of Americans would be likely to purchase cultured meat, with the other two-thirds having doubts about the product. Forty-eight percent said they would be unlikely to buy, and people under 40 were more likely to try cultured meats, according to the poll.
Often referred to as clean meat, lab meat, cell-cultured protein, petri-dish protein or cultured meat, investors in these alternative protein products are keeping mum on the process and technology of these new protein patties. First introduced in 2013 with a whopping price tag of $330,000/serving, investors now believe they are close to introducing the product to the marketplace at an affordable, competitive price for consumers; however, critics are saying in a rush to get to market, these protein products don’t have enough rigorous safety testing and scientific backing to put on the marketplace just yet.
So what is the process of cell cultured proteins? Investors and companies aren’t exactly saying, but they are heavily promoting the product and gaining a lot of media attention as a result.
While the science, safety and nutritional information haven’t been revealed to the public just yet, a rudimentary explanation of the technology can be explained in these steps. First, a biopsy is taken from a bovine animal, and placed in a petri dish where stem cells replicate and develop into small strands of muscle tissue. The petri dishes contain cell media that includes sugars, amino acids, salts, minerals and growth factors to promote the replication of cells. Currently, bovine fetal serum and proprietary non-animal sources are used as growth factors. The process produces waste materials in the forms of lactic acid and ammonia, all which must be removed as the growing cells split. Strands are then assembled into a ground meat product similar to a burger patty; the technology can’t produce steaks or whole muscle cuts. Adipose tissue is grown separately, and can be Omega-3 rich fat, which is added to the patty.
At least 20 startup companies, in the U.S. and abroad, have invested in cell cultured protein technology with promises of products hitting the marketplace by 2020. These companies include Memphis Meats, Mosa Meat, Higher Steaks, Blue Nalu, Finless Foods, Super Meat, Clara Foods, Perfect Day, Integriculture, Wild Earth, Bond Pet Foods, Modern Meadow and Just, to name a few. All are focused on creating the perfect product — beef, pork, seafood, chicken, egg whites, milk, fois gras, pet food and even leather — in a laboratory setting.
Promoted as more sustainable, better for the environment and “clean” without the use of hormones or antibiotics, bashing traditionally-raised meat and dairy products seems to be investors’ tactic for gaining market acceptance.
Bill Gates, an investor in Memphis Meats once said, “Raising meat takes a great deal of land and water and has a substantial environmental impact. Put simply, there’s no way to produce enough meat for 9 billion people. Yet we can’t ask everyone to become vegetarians. That’s why we need more options for producing meat without depleting our resources.”
And Matt Ball, Good Food Institute senior media relations specialist, said, “I do think that it’s likely that clean meat is going to eventually replace the vast majority of meat production in the world, because it’s going to be able to be done in a more efficient way and it’s going to become more cost effective. So it’s entirely possible that there will be a market for special products [meat from animals raised on farms], but I doubt that in 100 years that we’re going to have anything like the cattle industry as we know it today.”
Perhaps most troubling is the investments being made by meat packers, Tyson and Cargill. Addressing this concern, rancher Jim Mundorf recently wrote a blog post titled, “Tyson Foods joins Cargill in turning their backs on farmers and ranchers.”
Mundorf writes, “Four meat processors produce the vast majority of meat sold in the U.S. Tyson foods is number one and Cargill is number three. Together they can control the market. Now, as investors in Memphis Meats, they are partners. If this lab meat does become available and Tyson and Cargill see it as a more profitable product what’s to stop them from pushing actual meat out of the marketplace?”
To date, Tyson has invested in Memphis Meats, Beyond Meats, SuperMeat and Future Meat Technologies. Meanwhile, Cargill has invested in Memphis Meats, PURIS (pea protein producer), and Calysta (methane-based proteins).
“We continue to invest significantly in our traditional meat business, but also believe in exploring additional opportunities for growth that give consumers more choices,” said Justin Whitmore, Tyson chief sustainability officer.
While these major protein companies are free to invest where they see profits to be made, some are calling the packer investments in alternative proteins a “stab in the back.” Additionally, many are critical of their membership stake with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
“As evidenced by recent public statements, the multinational meatpacking companies are making a change to Big Protein,” said Lia Bondo, United States Cattlemen’s Association director of policy and outreach. “They no longer represent the best interest of U.S. cattle producers, as their portfolios now include alternative proteins – like plant-based burger ‘patties” and lab-grown protein. Use caution when submitting your annual membership dues – are the groups you’re cutting a check to really keeping your best interest as a top priority?”
Danielle Beck, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) director of government affairs, responded to the concerns, saying, “Yes, Cargill and Tyson are members and industry stakeholders, and I can’t speak for them, but I believe they are making calculated investments to what they think the new demand of protein will be in the future. It’s frustrating because at the end of the day, we put our producer members first, and we aren’t taking directions from anybody else. We’ll continue to advocate for our cow-calf producers and feedlot owners, and we’ve been working diligently on this issue for a year and a half now.”
Yet, advocates for these products are adamant that animal agriculture will be a thing of the past, something to read about in the history books, and the future of protein will be created in a lab. However, achieving the complexity of a meat product, capturing the taste and texture of beef, and ultimately, convincing the consumer to buy could prove to be great hurdles for these major investors in the competition for the center of the plate.