Since 2013, the trade press has discussed “Meat Substitutes” (also described as “Imitation Meat,” “Fake Meat,” “Faux Meat,” “Meat Alternatives,” “Alt-Meat,” “Lab-Grown Meat,” “Cultured Meat,” “in vitro Meat,” “Clean Meat,” and others). So far, 16 companies are making it, or trying to make it; 8 involve “Plant-Based Meat Alternatives” and 8 involve “Cultured-Meat.” Two Plant-Based Meat Alternative companies have been highly successful: (a) Beyond Meat TM has products in 19,000 grocery stores, 3,700 restaurants, and—via Sysco—hundreds of HRI businesses. (b) Impossible Foods TM has products in more than 1,000 restaurants and will soon launch in US grocery stores and in Asia.
Beyond Meat TM is comprised largely of pea protein, fava beans, rice, and beet juice—to simulate blood; Impossible Foods TM are made mostly from wheat, coconut oil, potatoes, and soy leghemoglobin—to simulate blood). Among many marketing claims, some Plant-Based Meat Alternatives have emphasized “Clean Labels” (which is defined as “simple ingredients, nothing artificial, minimally processed”), yet some of their products are “maximally processed” and contain 20 or more ingredients (including GMOs, potential allergens, and things with unpronounceable chemical names). There could also be a problem brewing if they call their products “meat,” “pork,” “salmon,” “beef,” or “chicken”. France just passed a law which banned the use of such descriptors when a food has no animal protein in it, and the State of Missouri forbids use of such terminology if the product is not derived from harvested production livestock.
Livestock producers are concerned knowing that the sale of macerated seeds and nuts as “soy milk” and “almond milk,” etc., caused a 4.5% decline in traditional white milk sales—just between 2016 and 2017. Repeat sales of Plant-Based Meat Alternatives will depend on price and taste. In April 2018, at a Texas supermarket, a pound of conventional 90% lean ground beef cost $3.99 as compared to $13.98 for Beyond Beef. Eaten with no accoutrements, sensory panelists don’t think Beyond Beef tastes much like beef, but buried in a burger it may be acceptable.
In 1932, Sir Winston Churchill said “Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under suitable medium.” None of the 8 Cultured-Meat companies has yet marketed a product; commercial production could begin in 3 to 5 years (by one estimate) or in a decade or two (by majority opinion).
The Cultured-Meat production process involves: (1) Extraction: Embryonic stem cells are extracted (via biopsy) from a cow, pig, chicken, among other animal species. (2) Replication: Muscle cells are mixed in a bacterial (usually Cyanobacter) based serum (some companies use fetal-calf serum) of nutrients (especially amino acids) plus vitamins and minerals, and nurtured so they can multiply to create muscle cells. (3) Expansion: The muscle cells are attached to a scaffold (made of alginate or cellulose) to create a strand (20,000 strands are required to make a 4-ounce patty); the scaffold shifts periodically to “exercise” the pseudo-muscle fibers. (4) Harvest: At present, the strands would be suitable for use in comminuted or ground meat.
Cultured-Meat companies are working on several fronts to commercialize the culturing process. At present, the culture medium is much too costly for commercially viable products. Generation of strands presently results in a slurry or sheets that could be used in soups, minces, grinds, nuggets, sausage or meatballs, but innovative “tissue engineering” studies seek ways to use 3-D printers and sophisticated scaffolds capable of generating steaks and chops—more like the cuts that originate from real animals. Taste has been a serious short-coming; companies are trying to simultaneously culture both muscle plus fat cells because species-specific flavor comes from the fat—not the muscle. The first cultured beef patty took three months to grow in a laboratory at a cost of $332,000 (for a single patty): since then, news reports say the cost of a single patty has been reduced to $100,000, then $4,500, and—in 2017—$625.
Cultured-Meat companies and their allies promote use of the term “Clean Meat” for such products, which infuriates cattlemen who say, “By default, saying ‘clean’ for meat substitutes implies that conventional meat is ‘dirty’, that’s a deeply offensive marketing ploy.” The Cultured-Meat rebuttal is “Clean Meat is a nod to the phrase Clean Energy. Clean Energy is better for the environment; Clean Meat is better for the environment.” It is also of concern whether of not consumers will consider “culturing” to actually be “genetic engineering” and thus the products to be GMOs.
Both Plant-Based Meat Alternatives and Cultured-Meat will also need a regulatory framework as they enter the marketplace. What get’s to be considered “meat” is a particularly touchy subject. Both the USDA and FDA are closely monitoring the situation.
Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn) has sought a GAO regulatory framework for cell-cultured food products. US Cattlemen’s Association has petitioned USDA to exclude from the definition of “meat”—any products not derived directly from animals. National Cattlemen’s Beef Association has asked USDA to protect the beef industry—and consumers—from “Fake Meat.” North American Meat Institute is trying to determine whether USDA or FDA will have jurisdiction over “lab-grown meat.” Others think FDA should develop a Standard of Identity for “meat” and/or that Federal Trade Commission oversight of labeling at retail might help. In a sudden and surprising move, the FDA announced (June 21, 2018) that it would hold a public meeting on the regulation of lab-grown protein on July 12, 2018. Livestock producers believe that the term “Clean Meat” and the claim “Clean Label” need to be stamped out before they take hold in the minds of the public. If “Clean Meat” can’t be used, the Good Food Institute (a non-profit organization that represents Cultured-Meat producers) intends to call it “Meat 2.0,” or “Safe Meat,” or “Pure Meat.” NCBA prefers terms like “in vitro meat,” “synthetic meat” or “meat byproduct”.
What does the future hold for Meat Substitutes? According to Rabobank, “Meat Substitutes may benefit from total global protein demand growth, but won’t bite into the existing—and rapidly growing—market for livestock and protein. How big it gets all depends on how people feel about the manufacturing processes, whether they see a health benefit, its taste, and its cost. Some folks may switch because of the perceived environmental benefits, but most won’t switch from traditional meat if the alternative is expensive or doesn’t taste good.”
Whatever else happens, the food industry must assure that there is strong food-safety and food-security oversight and protection against bioterrorism if we go full-bore on lab-grown meat. Scientific American (2016) said “Extracting and developing embryonic stem cell lines would, in normal conditions, be able to duplicate every day for long periods, meaning 10 cells could grow into 50,000 metric tons of meat in just two months. One such cell line would be sufficient to feed the world.” Imagine the consequences and ramifications if that cell line was intentionally—or unintentionally—contaminated.