Technology | December 2016 | By Maggie Hennessy

Can Lab-Grown Meat Feed the World?

Test-tube grown meats and imitation animal proteins present an eco-friendly alternative that could find traction in the restaurant community.
Memphis Meats grows animal proteins in a lab using cells from high-quality pigs and cows. Memphis Meats
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As the prospect looms of feeding a world population of 9 billion by 2050, conventional agriculture is running out of options.

Enter the next generation of growers: lab coat–clad scientists promising to help alleviate Big Ag’s environmental and health challenges via test tube–grown beef and pork and veggie burgers that “bleed” like real beef.

It’s been three years since Dutch scientists unveiled the first lab-grown burger in London, a 5-ounce burger patty that cost $330,000 to make and was funded by Google cofounder Sergey Brin. Since then, startups like Brooklyn’s Modern Meadow and San Francisco–based Memphis Meats have begun developing cultured meat products for the mass market, drawing investment from venture capitalists like Peter Thiel and startup accelerator Indie Bio.

Read about the fast casual serving the first Beyond Meat burger.

Others, like Bill Gates and Twitter cofounders Evan Williams and Biz Stone, are backing companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, which are developing mock-meat products that imitate the flavor, aroma, and cooking ability at a molecular level.

Lab-grown meat (also known as cultured or in vitro meat) is derived from animal cells. Memphis Meats starts the process by extracting cells from high-quality pigs and cows and placing them in a pathogen-free environment. The cells are fed nutrients—“The same way you’d feed grass to a cow,” says CEO and cofounder Uma Valeti. Once it’s achieved the desired tenderness, it’s ready to be cooked. The process takes two to three weeks, compared to 12–20 to raise a cow.

Cultured meat eliminates the chance of fecal contamination and associated health risks of conventional agriculture. It also produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions, as well as less water, less land, and less energy to produce, Valeti says. Given the sterile lab process, Memphis Meats doesn’t need to use antibiotics, nor does it use any growth-promoting hormones.

Ultimately, because it’s meat, it has big mainstream potential, Valeti says. “Plant-based meats are great, but not everybody is going to eat them,” he adds.

Mass-market cultured meat is still a ways off. In February, Memphis Meats launched a cultured meatball that cost an eye-popping $4,500 per quarter pound to make. But Valeti says the cost has dropped significantly in the past few months. The company aims to get its products into restaurants within three years, and in grocery stores by 2021. It expects to be cost-competitive with and eventually more affordable than conventionally produced meat, he adds.

Unlike past veggie burger makers, Impossible Foods explicitly had the mainstream meat-eater in mind when it set out to determine what, molecularly, makes meat so tasty and how to re-create that using plants. The company has created a burger comprising protein derived from potatoes, wheat, and heme—the molecule responsible for the meat-like flavor and aroma.

“Almost all of meat’s flavor comes from heme protein,” says chief strategy officer Nick Halla. “We use a protein from plants that’s almost identical to that found in animals, which drives the bloody look and creates flavor and aroma as you cook it.”

Impossible Foods’ burger has more protein and iron than beef, with similar absorption levels thanks to the heme. It’s also free of cholesterol and antibiotics. Halla doesn’t like to even categorize it as a veggie burger, adding that the company is targeting consumers who love the meat experience.

Impossible Foods’ products are so far getting high flavor marks from food-industry bigwigs like David Chang, who debuted it this fall at his Asian-inflected Italian hotspot Momofuku Nishi in New York for $12 (with fries). It will roll out in other select chef-driven restaurants around the country in the coming months as the company scales up.

Meanwhile, Whole Foods thinks Beyond Meat’s fat-oozing Beyond Burger is tasty enough to sell by the meat case in its stores, while Tyson Foodservice announced a 5 percent stake in Beyond Meat in October.

Cultured meat has received positive ratings on texture and flavor, though some taste testers have noted its lack of fat, comparing it to an animal-based “protein cake.” Valeti thinks there’s strong potential in the fast-food realm, given cultured meat’s potential in terms of production costs and health benefits. He’s already fielded inquiries from a number of people in quick service.

Anthony Pigliacampo, co-CEO of fast casual Modern Market, has sampled both cultured meat and next-gen mock meat products. So far, he’s never had one that even comes close to the taste of real meat.

He has very little interest in menuing either product at the Colorado-based chain, since they go against its “from the land” ethos, though he applauds the efforts to ease the effects of conventional meat production.

“I get that it opens protein sources to more people at a lower cost without the need to slaughter animals, but in my mind, we can also achieve that by eating less meat overall,” he says. “In the end, those things are all highly processed, and I try to remove processing wherever possible.”

Bay Area burger chain Super Duper takes a similar view, noting that both products go against the brand’s core values of using only natural ingredients from sustainable sources, says director of kitchen operations Jose Garcia. The brand sources humanely raised, vegetarian-fed beef from local farms and makes a proprietary organic veggie burger with a house-made bun.

“At some point, we hope that natural products from sustainable sources will be affordable and accessible to everyone … [but] we’re not interested in changing who we are to meet current trends,” Garcia says.