Meat & Dairy

How ‘cultivated’ meat and dairy might succeed

The development of ‘cultivated’ meat, dairy and seafood is gathering steam in the US - as is Big Food's interest in the emerging sector. Victor Martino investigates whether cultivated meat and dairy could go mainstream.

Attempts at paradigm shifts are rare in the food industry, and when they do happen they're measured in decades rather than years. 

Processed foods, which is arguably the biggest technological paradigm shift the industry has seen to date, were introduced in the US in 1910 and didn't reach mainstream status until the end of World War II, when a plethora of brands, most featuring trans-fats, flooded grocery store shelves. 

Ironically, we're only seeing a serious consumer backlash against trans-fats and processed foods today, over half a century later.

Additionally, organic foods, which have been widely available at retail for 40 to 50 years, still only represent about 5% of total US grocery sales. And in the eyes of the food industry establishment, organic has only become mainstream in recent times.

The US food industry is traditionally a conservative industry that takes a gradual approach to major changes. But that approach appears to be coming to an end - or at least a major pause - when it comes to the phenomenon of lab-produced or ‘cultivated’ meat, seafood and dairy. Instead, traditionally conservative Big Meat and Big Food are jumping into the petri-dish with both feet and their fists full of investment dollars.

Big brand interest in alternatives

A case in point was the second annual Good Food Institute (GFI) conference last September in San Francisco, the go-to event for those involved and interested in the alternative meat, seafood and dairy segments.

The 2018 event had been an intimate affair, attended mostly by founders of start-ups in the plant-based, and to a lesser degree lab-based segments, along with investors and members of the media. Additionally, lab-based meat, seafood and dairy received little attention compared to plant-based meat alternatives.

What a difference a year - at least in faux meat time - makes. At the 2019 conference representatives from a who's who of Big Meat and Big Food - Tyson Foods, JBS, Smithfield Foods, Kellogg, Nestle and Hormel to name just five - attended and participated in the conference.

The bottom line: the huge success of Beyond Meat - the company says it has sold over $165m of product in the last 12 months - and Impossible Foods, which has sold a lot of beefless-burgers in restaurants and launched its Impossible ground beef in the retail sector last September, has the attention of the larger players.

And that attention is now turning in a major way to the next iteration in animal-free food products: lab-produced meat, seafood and dairy.

The leap from plant-based to lab-grown

Plant-based dairy and meat is mainstream in the US. (Because plant-based seafood remains tertiary, it's too marginal to be given mainstream status.) Grocery giant Kroger's announcement at the GFI conference that it is launching an entire line of plant-based food products under its hugely popular Simple Truth brand is a pretty good bookend to my assertion that plant-based has become a mainstream category in the US.

Conversely, no lab-based meat, seafood or dairy products have yet reached the shelves, although start-up Perfect Day did launch a limited-edition ice cream produced using the principles of cellular agriculture earlier this year.

The 1,000 pints of ice cream, which sold online for $20 a pint, sold out in a couple of weeks. The California lab-based dairy start-up produced the ice cream to demonstrate proof of concept. It doesn't plan to be a branded food company but rather to work with others. It recently signed a deal with food and agribusiness giant Archer Daniel Midlands (ADM), for example.

It took Big Food much longer to show an interest in organic and plant-based foods, than in lab-based foods.

Despite the current absence of commercially viable branded products, lab-based meat, seafood and dairy are generating as much - and perhaps even more - excitement and buzz as I recall organic getting in the 1980s through 1990s. In fact, it took Big Food much longer to show an interest in organic and plant-based foods, than in lab-based foods.

However, the use of biotechnology to create animal-free meat, finless-fish and cow-free dairy is filled with promise and uncertainty. It's truly the food industry's wild west paradigm. And its success or failure ultimately rests on five key criteria:

1 Commercial viability

The jury is still out on whether or not the well-funded start-ups can bring to market lab-produced meat, seafood and dairy products at price points competitive with similar traditional and plant-based products. And even if they can, will they be able to make a profit at the margins required to do so? 

Since Professor Mark Post created the first cultivated burger in 2013, the cost per burger has dropped from £215,000 to just £8. That's a huge cost reduction but there's still a long way to go in cost of production in order to be commercially viable. Post and his company, Netherlands-based Mosa Meat, have previously predicted commercialisation by 2020, and in the US there are others, such as Memphis Meats, trying to keep pace with this timeline.

2 Need for market speed

There are so many lab-based start-ups in the meat, seafood and dairy spaces that once they all launch their products we're likely to see almost immediate market saturation. As such, the industry and its investors, including big food companies, need to start creating a market today. Perfect Day's limited-edition ice cream was a start at such an effort. Others should follow suit.

3 Regulation

The US Food and Drug Administration and the US Department of Agriculture don't have rules to approve or formally regulate lab-produced meat, seafood and dairy. Instead, they require companies to submit information which they rule on.

This is the case with Impossible Foods, which has received approval for its use of soy leghemoglobin, or heme (the ingredient makes the burgers taste like meat), and the related biotechnology.

A formal regulatory framework is needed in order to set clear industry-wide rules and regulations. Additionally, there will be challenges from traditional meat, seafood and dairy companies as is occurring with plant-based meat and dairy. A regulatory framework will help deal with the uncertainties these challenges are sure to pose.

4 What to call the food

Terms currently used are lab-produced, lab-grown, cultured meat, cellular meat and clean-meat, among others. The terminology surrounding biotechnology-produced foods is all over the place.

This not only has the public confused, but it's also causing confusion within the industry itself. A common name needs to be agreed on. The Good Food Institute proposed the term "cultivated meat" at its conference last year. It's based on some pretty solid research and allows the industry to move away from contentious terms like ‘clean meat’, as well as terms like ‘lab-grown’, which has a Frankenfoods sound to it.

5 Consumer acceptance

Consumers will have the final say in whether or not cultivated meat, seafood and dairy products succeed. All of the above factors are important points of focus on the road to this ultimate and final step.

Having Big Food involved as investors and direct participants in this animal-free paradigm shift and experiment is important to its ultimate success.

GFI executive director Bruce Friedrich echoed this sentiment at The Future of Meat conference in September. "Progress has been stunning," he said in reference to the huge interest in faux meat, seafood and dairy over the last year, "and I don't think anything is more exciting than having Big Meat and Big Food involved."

Big Food companies should also consider launching its own research and development efforts in the area. Millennials and Gen Z are open to alternative meat, be it plant or lab-based. Taking the potential future of food into their own hands is something most big food companies have neglected over the last couple of decades, instead outsourcing R&D to startups through investments and acquisitions.

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