The past few years have seen an explosion in choice when it comes to plant-based meat alternatives, while the promise of cultured meat remains largely just that – a promise that has hurdles to clear before it can be realized.
Cultured or cultivated meat – also called lab-grown or cell-based meat – is made from the cells of animals that are “fed” with a nutrient medium that spurs the cells to grow until they become recognizable as meat.
The promise is that, unlike plant-based alternatives, the products are identical to meat but made without the need to raise and slaughter livestock on a scale that’s detrimental to animals and the environment.
The global market for cultured meat is forecast to reach $499.9 million by 2030, up from $133.4 million last year, according to Polaris Market Research.
Those forecasts will largely depend on companies overcoming the industry’s two biggest challenges – the ability to scale production and the ability to win regulatory approval from governments around the world.
Big meat companies buy in
Alternatives to traditional meat production have met with industry resistance and, in some states, labeling laws that restrict the ability of alternative brands to call their products “meat.” But increasingly, both plant-based and cultured meat makers have also won buy-in from some traditional industry players that recognize the potential for future growth and profits.
Public and private funding for cultured meat projects grew around the world last year, according to a report from the Good Food Institute. JBS, the world’s biggest meat company, unveiled plans to invest $100 million in cultivated meat products, including the acquisition of Spain-based BioTech Foods and plans to build a new cell-based meat plant in that country.
That single capital expenditure plan is more than half the $166 million that was invested in the entire cultured meat industry from 2016 through 2019, according to an earlier GFI report. Throughout the industry, capital investment grew 336% last year to $1.38 billion, led by Israel-based Future Meat Technologies which raised $347 million in a funding round that included major global food companies including ADM and Tyson.
In the December announcement on the funding round, Future Meat reported plans to identify future production sites in the US and it also said that it had cut the cost of producing its cultured chicken breasts from $18 per pound to $7.70 per pound in a span of six months.
Last month, US-based cultured meat pioneer UPSIDE Foods topped Future’s record fundraise with the announcement of a $400 million investment round the company will use to further efforts to bring its products to commercial markets. Plans call for UPSIDE to use some of the funding, which came from a group that includes big food companies Cargill and Tyson Foods, to build a facility capable of producing “tens of millions of pounds” of meat per year, the company said in its April news release.
UPSIDE began life in 2015 as Memphis Meats and has made big strides over the past two years. In addition to changing its name, the company has partnered with high-profile chef Dominique Crenn to start selling its first cultured chicken products at Crenn’s Michelin-starred restaurant, Atelier Crenn, as soon as the product wins regulatory approval.
Last year also saw the launch of 21 new cultured meat companies, joining 86 existing players, according to the GFI report, with startups rolling out across the globe in countries including Brazil, Mexico and Africa.
In its report, GFI illustrates the stages the industry has gone through since 2013 when researchers first demonstrated that it was possible to grow meat from cells to the period from 2019 to 2022 when companies began piloting commercial production. The report forecasts that companies will continue to scale production in the coming years until they’re able to produce millions of metric tons of cultivated meat for commercial sale.
Some players are also turning fish cells into cultured seafood, including BlueNalu. In January of this year, the company announced a partnership with Japan-based sushi restaurant operator Food & Life Companies, which operates about 1,000 restaurants throughout Asia. The companies plan to work together to develop and market products, starting with a cultured version of bluefin tuna. They’ll also collaborate to make progress on obtaining the regulatory approval they’ll need to start serving the products to consumers.
The industry has felt the pinch of the pandemic along with others in the food supply chain, but companies have continued to focus on efforts to grow and scale, GFI’s report says.
“Delivery of bioreactors and other critical inputs faced delays due to increased demand for vaccine production from the pharmaceutical sector, as well as other upstream shortages. Nevertheless, the cultivated meat category made enormous progress in 2021, hitting key milestones and moving a step closer to its full potential of reimagining our global food system,” the report says.
Winning over regulatory bodies
Until this year, scaling production was likely the biggest hurdle. News from companies worldwide revealed that many took giant steps toward their production growth goals in 2021. Progress in that area outpaced progress toward overcoming the second big challenge – regulatory approval.
The first lab-grown meat sample was publicly unveiled in 2013 by Netherlands-based Mosa Meat co-founder Mark Post, a University of Maastricht physiologist who made big buzz at the time with the news that the first cell-based burger cost about $330,000 to make.
The company, like the industry, has made strides since then, and last month it announced plans by the Dutch government to invest about $62.5 million to back efforts to build an ecosystem around cell-based meat production. The company is a founding member of a consortium called Cellular Agriculture Netherlands that will push for greater public funding for education, research and other projects to further societal acceptance of cultured meat.
One company, plant-based egg maker Eat Just, won approval to sell its cultured chicken alternatives in Singapore in late 2020 and subsequently introduced the product on a small scale there. Winning that approval took the company two years and regulatory bodies in other countries haven’t moved that quickly.
Approvals will come on a country-by-country basis. In the US, the FDA and USDA began working together in 2019 to establish a regulatory framework for the industry and , last year, the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service solicited public comments, another step toward potential approval.
Perhaps even more telling – last October, the USDA announced plans to invest $10 million over five years to create the National Institute for Cellular Agriculture at Tufts University, perhaps showing that the agency, like the meat industry, could be buying into cultivated meat.
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