Now the future belongs to lab-grown meat.
In November, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first lab-grown meat product for human consumption, a chicken fillet produced by California-based Upside Foods.
Growing meat in a lab is one thing, getting people to eat it is another. Leah Douglas, a Reuters reporter on agricultural and energy policy, spoke with the Texas Standard about the industry’s plans to expand and market its products. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity:
Texas Standard: How soon will some of these products be available in restaurants and stores? And we should stress, by the way, that we’re not talking about traditional meat substitutes like Beyond Burger and the like, right? It’s actually lab-grown meat.
Leah Douglas: Yes. It’s real meat, grown from animal cells grown, according to the industry, in massive steel vats called bioreactors. From there, the product is taken and formed, in this case, chicken breast. And the FDA-cleared company is still awaiting another USDA approval. But once they do, they hope to have their product in high-end restaurants during this year and in grocery stores within 5-10 years.
You said “turn into chicken breasts”. So you could shape it the way you wanted? Are we talking about something that malleable?
Yes. These companies want to produce all kinds of products. So some cultured meat companies produce chicken, some produce beef, lamb, seafood. And there is a vision to have sausages, steaks, chicken breasts, all variety of meat products that are all derived from the same mixture of cells grown in these bioreactors.
Can you tell us a little more about how these products are actually made? You mentioned vats.
Yes, cultured meat is made when companies take a small sample of cells from a live animal and insist that no animals are harmed in the process. The cells are then fed with a mixture of nutrients and water in these large bioreactors and then, after a certain period of time, it is collected and turned into the final product.
We mentioned chicken breast, which the FDA has already approved for human consumption. Have you had a chance to try it?
I, unfortunately, did not have the opportunity to try it, but our photographer in California did it. And he reported that it tasted like regular chicken. He couldn’t tell.
Very interesting. So I’m guessing the question looming there is whether consumers will buy it, right? I mean, what are the barriers between lab-grown meat and grocery store shelves? But what about the consumer factor?
Well, the companies I’ve spoken to have made it very clear that they know there’s a hurdle to overcome here – that some people are really put off by the idea of meat being grown and harvested this way and confused by it. And the various executives, as you know, are very clear that their strategy is to be as transparent as possible about the process and also enlist the help of some influencers in the culinary world. So chefs like José Andrés work with some of these companies and promise that once the products are approved by US regulators, they will sell them in their restaurants.
And in terms of the barriers to getting to the grocery store, which is what all these companies ultimately hope for, there are serious problems with scaling between here and there. Therefore, very little cultivated meat is now produced. The companies say they need a lot more money to build even bigger steel vessels – bioreactors – to grow this product. And as they continue to increase production, the price will drop to a level where it is competitive at the grocery store.
Well, being in Texas, I think a lot of people might be wondering if these bioreactors could bankrupt a ranch?
Well, I think there has been a lot of investment in this sector from the traditional meat industry. And these companies say that, as you know, they want to have a full portfolio of different protein options. So they see cultured meat as another option rather than a replacement for conventional livestock. And I also heard this message from the meat farming companies.
How about the price? Consumer prices. You mean more expensive? Cheaper? Does it make sense?
Well, right now, companies are expecting that when they first bring this product to market, it will be more expensive than regular meat. So, Upside Foods, for example, is planning, once they get USDA approval, to roll out the product to high-end restaurants because they think people there will tolerate the higher price. And according to the company, they’ll also have a better first impression of a product if it’s made by a professional chef rather than at home. And, again, as the production of cultured meat grows, companies expect that prices will fall and be able to compete in a grocery store – become a little more affordable.