Could this be the year that meat grown in vats rather than taken from animals reaches our plates? In the summer of 2017, San Francisco-based food company Just (formerly Hampton Creek), announced plans to put meat grown in vats on the market by the end of 2018. The firm’s slick promotional video featured people eating nuggets grown from the cells of a chicken that walked past them as they ate, and stressed the potential for this meat to have a lower environmental impact.
Fifteen months later, the company has said this will take the form of paid-for consumer taste tests of its chicken meat product at a small number of restaurants. But, with the clock ticking, Just maintains it will have the world’s first commercially available cell-based meat ready before the year is out.
This isn’t the only reason to think this year could prove to be a turning point in the development of this cell-based meat. Alongside Just, there has been a recent explosion in the number of start-up companies working to make commercially viable products. Many are located in the San Francisco Bay area, including Mission Barns, Wild Type, and the bluefin tuna-focused Finless Foods. Others are found elsewhere, including Israel’s SuperMeat, the UK’s Higher Steaks, and the Netherlands-based Meatable.
Meanwhile, the debate around the regulation of cell-based meat has stepped up significantly. This is particularly the case in the US where government bodies are soon due to decide who should control the rules around the technology, an important step on the road to commercialisation. Perhaps most interestingly, we have also seen the first organised swipes at the fledgling sector from groups questioning its merits, showing the new industry is being taken increasingly seriously.
What’s in a name?
Many of the issues in the debate can be found in the argument over what to call this new type of meat. Even those producing it can’t seem to agree. A lot has changed since the first burger grown in a laboratory was tasted in 2013 – and these products have since been referred to variously as “cultured meat”, “clean meat” and, most recently, “cell-based meat”. Some outside the sector argue that it shouldn’t be called meat at all.
In fact, the public debate on the regulation of cell-based meat really started in February 2018, when the US Cattlemen’s Association petitioned the government to limit the terms “meat” and “beef” only to products “derived directly from animals raised and slaughtered”. This definition intentionally excluded meat grown from cells, and was the first professionalised attack on the technology.
The name of the product matters not least because two US government bodies, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA), have been disputing under whose remit cell-based meat should fall, with both asserting their right to take control. A recent summit between the two bodies could prove to be the start of an amicable end to a heated debate and a move towards creating proper regulation for the sector.
At times, the disagreement has been framed as an us-versus-them situation between farmers, believed to be backing the USDA, and the companies creating the meat, believed to favour the FDA. By the time of the recent meeting, most participants seemed to accept that FDA and USDA would each have a role, but the debate shifted to which should be the primary driving force.
During the process of public consultation, groups such as start-up Memphis Meats argued their produce was already legally meat and should be known as such. The companies believe the produce’s status as meat is essential to delivering its environmental and ethical promise because it will encourage more people to shift from traditional meat than if it were marketed as a specialist vegan product. Denying its “meatness” could deny its potential success. Farmers, meanwhile, have taken particular exception to the phrase “clean meat” to describe the product, because it implies meat from livestock is unclean.
But in August, Memphis Meats and the North American Meat Institute made a reconciliatory move in a shared letter to the US president, Donald Trump, calling for USDA and FDA to take joint action and introducing the term “cell-based meats” to describe the product. In September around 20 start-up companies agreed to adopt “cell-based” as their preferred name and to start a trade association under the banner (although others still prefer “clean” or “cultured”).
A second organised swipe against the sector also came over the summer when Friends of the Earth published a report questioning the environmental credentials of cell-based meat and noting that claims it was more sustainable haven’t been proven. It has been known for some time that Friends of the Earth have some scepticism about the technology, but it’s telling that the group has now gone as far as issuing a public report. As cell-based meat is being taken more seriously, those who remain concerned put more effort into making their case.
Despite the controversy, proponents of cell-based meat are running high on optimism. New companies seem to be announced almost every month, while existing firms are expanding. Mosa Meats, for example, recently announced new funding and plans for a pilot “meat brewery”. Equally, the transformative potential is being discussed by governments and food businesses alike, including in the most recent report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
However, as my colleagues and I recently argued, many technical and political challenges remain. And, as 2018 has shown, the increasing seriousness with which cell-based meat is taken could lead to more deliberate attacks on the technology. This could occur at a time when the initial venture capital funding for some companies starts to dwindle, and some of the first wave of companies may fail.
The sector needs to be braced for these challenges ahead. It seems possible that while the past five years have seen a new food-tech community in formation, the coming years may see an outward looking community celebrating hard-won successes – and ruing hard-lost fights.
Neil Stephens receives funding from the Wellcome Trust.