July 16, 2020 update: KFC today announced it is partnering with a Russian company, 3D Bioprinting Solutions, to develop “bioprinting technology using chicken cells and plant material, allowing it to reproduce the taste and texture of chicken meat almost without involving animals in the process.”
Journalist Chase Purdy is the rare person who can say he’s tried chicken, foie gras, and a meatball—among other foods—all grown in a lab. Originating from animal cells in petri dishes and not from slaughter, this meat is colloquially known as “motherless,” cell-cultured, or cell-based.
Since 2013, cellular agriculture has seen the launch of at least 10 food tech startups, and more than $100 million in investments from billionaires and venture capitalists. In his new book, Billion Dollar Burger: Inside Big Tech’s Race for the Future of Food, Purdy writes about cell-based meat’s origins, taste, and benefits, while documenting how one startup—San Francisco-based JUST—has vowed to make lab-grown meat the next food fad.
According to Purdy, getting cell-based meat into restaurants and supermarkets is a tricky undertaking. For one, scientists have to get the taste and texture just right (it’s apparently much leaner than meat from animals). And though the consistency of ground meat is relatively easy for technologists to replicate, other cuts, such as steaks and filets, require complex methods to get muscle cells to grow as they would in animals.
Cost is also a factor, but not as much as it once was. In 2013, cell-cultured meat was priced at $1.2 million per pound. “Now it’s hovering around $50 per pound, a precipitous drop as the technologists behind it have pushed the science to new heights,” writes Purdy. But that’s still too expensive to make it the next Impossible Burger, the plant-based protein available for $12 per pound at grocery stores around the country.
As technological advances bring production costs down, however, cell-based meat has been touted as an innovation that could annually save the lives of millions of animals and reverse the effects of climate change, since factory farms are significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions. (Writing for Quartz, however, Purdy reported that it’s unclear how much good cell-cultured meat will actually do for the environment.)
Despite its would-be benefits, not everyone is a champion of lab-grown meat, particularly its competitors in the conventional meat industry. American food-tech companies also face regulatory hurdles about oversight. Last year, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it will oversee the cells harvested for cultured foods and that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will supervise development into the meat as well as the product labeling. Once that happens, the fact remains that many consumers will have no clue what cell-cultured meat is—and others might flat-out refuse to try it.
Civil Eats spoke with Purdy about lab grown meat’s perceived “ick” factor, its potential impact, and the startups angling to be the first to make it accessible to the public.
Let’s start with COVID-19 and how outbreaks at meat processing facilities have reportedly generated more consumer interest in plant-based meat. Do you think this might also make the public more interested in trying lab grown meat?
My general thought is that the people behind cell-cultured meat still have a lot of work to do to actually get the idea into the public imagination. It’s starting to get to that level, especially as these technologies and this food gets closer to the point of being ready for market. It is ready for market in simple terms and simple types of meat, but the regulatory hurdle is what everyone’s currently waiting to get over. But anytime you talk about alternative meats, whether plant-based or cell-cultured, they get connected to animal welfare issues and climate change. And COVID-19 and its impact on the meat system in particular adds an extra sense of urgency that a lot of alternative meat companies can use to make their case to the public.
There are something like 35,000 meatpacking plant workers who have been exposed at this point. That’s a shocking number and a major labor problem. And, sure, I think that is an extra bow in the quiver for the cultured meat companies.
Can you discuss where the USDA and FDA are now with regard to cell-cultured meat?
The USDA and the FDA have working groups going over this. They could be working more closely with each other but, all in all, they’re making progress. The cultured meat companies are basically having to compile and deliver all the important data that the agencies need to comb through to build a regulatory framework. They’re looking at their own production process, like you would at any food plant, and identifying the risks and talking about how they will address them.
Only about five cell-cultured meat companies around the world at this point have pilot production facilities or have announced that they’ve begun construction on a production facility. Among that group is BlueNalu, which makes fish; JUST, which is sort of the center of the book; and Memphis Meats.
Why did you end up making JUST CEO Josh Tetrick the focus of Billion Dollar Burger?
In the book, I make it pretty clear that all of these companies have different strengths and weaknesses. And not all of the food they’re making is equal. I have tried some of JUST’s cell-cultured meat, and some of it impressed me and some of it was . . . fine. But Josh was the center because he’s a known quantity. One of his company’s strengths is that he already knows how to sell food. He has relationships and supply chains already laid out, both in Asia and here in North America, and that’s going to help him out a lot.
Why did you name the book Billion Dollar Burger?
The title is hyperbolic, but what I wanted to convey is whether you are squeamish about cell-cultured meat or totally in love with the idea, there are enough billionaire investors and other people who are motivated to make it a reality, so people need to be thoughtful about it and to come at it with a critical lens. The book title was to emphasize to people the amount of interest behind this, including from Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Li Ka-shing in Hong Kong. The working title of the book was The End of Meat, but that didn’t work because what I’m describing is a new kind of meat, not the end of it.
Tell me about your experience eating lab-grown meat. What was it like?
I’ve tried the meat a bunch of times. The first thing I was ever served was foie gras, which I wasn’t raised eating, so it was kind of hard to impress me with that. It tasted really rich and had a meat-ish flavor to it that I could imagine foie gras tasting like. Then, I was served duck chorizo tacos, fried chicken, a chicken salad, a meatball, a chicken nugget, and all of those were really good.
There’s a scene in the book [where I’m] trying a Memphis Meats chicken tender—taste is obviously something that people are really interested in, but one of the things that I’m interested in is the texture and how it looks on the inside. You can imagine cutting into chicken breasts, and you notice it’s pretty stringy and fibrous. It’s actually really hard to get cells to grow that way in a controlled setting overseen by humans. But Memphis Meats actually accomplished that. They gave me this chicken tender, I pulled it apart, and when I saw that they’d [made it look like real chicken], it made it so real.
What are your thoughts on the public’s willingness to consume cell-cultured meat? Michigan State University’s 2018 Food Literacy and Engagement Poll found that 48 percent of respondents aren’t willing to try it.
There’s obviously always going to be a subset of eaters who are like, “Gross—never trying it; not interested.” And there will always be a subset of people who are a little too enthusiastic about these kinds of food-tech creations. And there’s a middle ground, where people are curious and/or skeptical. Those people are the ones companies want to appeal to, the people who are willing to roll up to a restaurant, stop in the grocery store, select this product and try it.
That’s the shot that this little industry has. Most people that I encounter have been very interested in at least trying cultured meat. The New York Times wrote a review of the book and the reviewer focused on the “ick” factor, and everyone in the comments was basically like, “You need to get over it.”
There’s no doubt in my mind that all cultured meat companies are going to have to do a better job communicating to the public exactly how much better for the environment their process is. Most of the data shows that animal agriculture accounts for about 14 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Think about the energy it takes to harvest crops, transport the grain to the animals, and raise the animals for slaughter. It’s not hard to imagine how that system could pretty easily be improved upon by a process that doesn’t involve an animal.
What are you hoping readers get out of this book?
I hope this book introduces people to a concept that they’re going to be confronted with in the near future. And I want people who are interested in learning more to be able to pick up the book, read it, and get a sense of the brands and motivations behind it and to better understand the political willpower that has fought against and supported it. I want people to, more than anything, just be thoughtful about it.
With climate change being as significant as it is, it would be disappointing to come across a tool that could be really promising, and to just sort of dismiss it out of hand. And I think that, hopefully, this book will give people a language to be able to talk about it, understand it, and to really dig deep and think about how they feel about it.
When I started this book, my main concern was that this meat is so far from nature, and my thoughts changed during the course of my reporting. It forced me to think more deeply about my own relationship with food and my preconceived notions about my own proximity to the natural world, and I hope it spurs others to dig deeper, too.
Edited for brevity and clarity.