Lab-grown meat is getting closer to American plates

WASHINGTON, Jan 23 (Reuters) – Once the stuff of science fiction, lab-grown meat could become reality in some restaurants in the United States as early as this year.

Cultured meat company executives are optimistic that meat cultured in huge steel tanks could be on the menu within months of a company getting the green light from a key regulator. In a show of confidence, some of them have hired high-end chefs like Argentinian Francis Mallmann and Spaniard José Andrés to eventually showcase the meats in their high-end restaurants.

But getting to its ultimate destination – supermarket shelves – cultured meat faces big hurdles, five executives told Reuters. Companies need to attract more funding to increase production, which would allow them to offer their beef steaks and chicken breasts at a more affordable price. Along the way, they must overcome some consumers’ reluctance to even try lab-grown meat.

Cultured meat is derived from a small sample of cells taken from livestock, which is then fed nutrients, grown in huge steel vessels called bioreactors, and turned into something that looks and tastes like a real cut of meat.

Only one country, Singapore, has so far approved the product for retail sale. But the United States is ready to follow. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said in November that a cultured meat product — chicken breast grown by California-based company UPSIDE Foods — was safe for human consumption.

UPSIDE now hopes to have its product in restaurants as early as 2023 and in grocery stores by 2028, its executives told Reuters.

UPSIDE has yet to be inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and obtain agency approval on its labels. A USDA FSIS spokesperson declined to comment on its inspection schedule.

“HOUSE WITHOUT LAUGHING”

At UPSIDE’s facility in Emeryville, Calif., workers in lab coats were seen hunched over touchscreens and monitoring giant vats of water mixed with nutrients during a recent visit by Reuters. The meat is harvested and processed in a room that general manager Uma Valeti calls the “no-slaughter house”, where it is inspected and tested.

Reuters reporters received a chicken sample from UPSIDE during the visit. It tasted the same as conventional chicken when cooked, although it was a bit thinner and had a more even tan color when raw.

UPSIDE worked with the FDA for four years before receiving the green light from the agency in November, Valeti told Reuters.

“This is a watershed moment for the industry,” he said.

California-based cultured meat company GOOD Meat already has a pending application with the FDA, which has not been previously reported. Two other companies, Netherlands-based Mosa Meat and Israel-based Believer Meats, said they were in talks with the agency, company executives told Reuters.

The FDA declined to provide details on the pending cultured meat applications, but confirmed it was talking with several companies.

Regulatory approval is only the first hurdle in making cultured meat accessible to a wide range of consumers, executives from UPSIDE, Mosa Meat, Believer Meats and GOOD Meat told Reuters.

The biggest challenge facing companies is developing the nascent supply chain for the nutrient mix to feed cells and for the massive bioreactors needed to produce large quantities of cultured meat, executives said.

For now, production is limited. The UPSIDE facility has the capacity to produce 400,000 pounds of cultured meat annually — a small fraction of the 106 billion pounds of conventional meat and poultry produced in the United States in 2021, according to the North American Meat Institute, a meat industry lobby group.

If companies can’t get the funds to scale up production, their product may never reach a price where it can compete with conventional meat, said GOOD Meat co-founder Josh Tetrick.

“Selling is different from selling a lot,” Tetrick said. “Until we as a company and other companies build large-scale infrastructure, it will remain very small-scale.”

SAMPLING FROG

The cultured meat sector has so far raised nearly $2 billion in investments globally, according to data collected by the Good Food Institute (GFI), a research group focused on alternatives to conventional meat. .

But it will take hundreds of millions of dollars for GOOD Meat, for example, to build bioreactors of the size needed to manufacture its meat at scale, Tetrick said.

Investments in the industry so far have been led by venture capitalists and major food companies such as JBS SA (JBSS3.SA), Tyson Foods Inc (TSN.N) and Archer-Daniels-Midland Co (ADM.N).

JBS spokeswoman Nikki Richardson said the company’s investments in cultured meat “are consistent with our efforts to build a diverse global food portfolio of traditional, plant-based and alternative protein product offerings.” .

Tyson did not respond to a request for comment. ADM declined to comment.

Much of that money has been directed to the United States, the No. 1 target for cultured meat makers because of its size and wealth, said Jordan Bar Am, a McKinsey & Company partner who focuses on alternative proteins.

Some companies are ramping up US production even before their products have been approved by regulators.

Believer Meats plans to build a facility in North Carolina, slated for commissioning in early 2024, that could produce 22 million pounds of meat annually, chief executive Nicole Johnson-Hoffman said. And GOOD Meat plans to expand production in California and Singapore to 30 million pounds a year.

The European Union, Israel and other countries are also working on regulatory frameworks for cultured meat, but have not yet approved any product for human consumption.

THE “ICK” FACTOR

Cultured meat companies plan to impress upon consumers that their product is greener and more ethical than conventional livestock, while trying to overcome an aversion to their product among some buyers.

For one, their product does not involve the slaughter of animals, which the companies hope will make the product appealing to people who avoid meat for moral reasons. The animals are unharmed during the cell collection process, company executives told Reuters.

Another benefit is that growing meat in a steel container rather than in a field could reduce the environmental impact of livestock, which is responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions from meat production. animal feed, deforestation, manure management and enteric fermentation – animal burps. – according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Plant-based meat companies have also lured consumers with moral and environmental claims, despite the sector capturing just 1.4% of the meat market, according to a GFI report.

But cultured meat companies have the advantage of being able to claim their product is real meat, Tetrick said.

“Probably the most important thing we’ve learned is that people really like meat. They’re probably not going to eat much less of it,” he said.

Still, many people are put off by cultured meat, said Janet Tomiyama, a health psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles who studies human diets.

In a 2022 study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, she found that 35% of meat eaters and 55% of vegetarians would be too disgusted to try cultured meat.

Some people may perceive meat as “unnatural” and have a negative attitude about it even before trying it, she said.

To appeal to hesitant buyers, companies need to be as clear as possible about how their product is made and whether it’s safe to eat, said Tetrick, whose company has sold its product to restaurants in Singapore.

“You have to be transparent about it, but in a way that’s still appetizing,” he said.

UPSIDE Foods and GOOD Meat plan to whet American palates by marketing their products to high-end restaurants once approved, they told Reuters, betting that consumers there will tolerate a higher price and have a good first impression of their meat.

UPSIDE hopes to bring its products to grocery stores within the next three to five years, CEO Valeti said.

Major U.S. supermarket chains did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.

Restaurateur Andrés, known for his work on global food security, told Reuters he wanted to sell cultured meat because of its environmental benefits.

“We can see from what is happening all around us, in every country in the world, that our planet is in crisis,” he said.

Chef Mallmann, known for preparing meat and other foods over outdoor flames, told Reuters he was also influenced by environmental considerations and saw the role of chefs as making the product more economically appealing. gastronomic and less scientific.

“We have to add romance to it,” he said.

Reporting by Leah Douglas, editing by Richard Valdmanis and Ross Colvin

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Lea Douglas

Thomson Reuters

Award-winning Washington-based journalist covering agriculture and energy, including competition, regulation, federal agencies, corporate consolidation, environment and climate, racial discrimination and labor, formerly at Food and Environment ReportingNetwork.

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