When Will Cultivated Meat Hit Supermarket Shelves?
And 4 key challenges to overcome before it happens.
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Cultivated meat - meat grown in a sterile lab from animal cells - sounds like something straight out of a science fiction novel. And depending on which version of the story you read, it holds the utopian promise of an abundant supply of animal protein, minus the suffering and much of the environmental impact.
Cultivated meat is not science fiction though. It is real. But how far off is the utopian promise of lab-grown meat? When will it begin to provide meaningful amounts of sustenance for the global population? Today, we will argue that it is both closer and further away than you may realize.
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The Question of “When”
Since the world’s first lab-grown burger was cultivated in 2013, pundits have been asking the question, “when?”. When can we expect to see these kinds of products in restaurants? More significantly, when will they hit supermarket shelves? The assumption here is that if cultured meat can be produced in large enough quantities to fill supermarkets, at supermarket-friendly prices, then it’s doing a good job of living up to our lofty expectations.
Depending on who you ask, the answer to this question can range from next year to at least 10 years from now. In many respects, it depends on the channel, and what you imagine cultivated meat to be.
In the case of restaurants, it’s already here, albeit in a limited capacity. Good Meat’s cultivated chicken is being sold in Singapore right now. Singapore, however, remains the only country to have approved the sale of cultivated meat to date.
Good Meat’s products are hybrids of plant-protein and cultivated chicken cells. Half-plant half-animal cell products like these are far closer to debuting on restaurant menus than most realize. But if you boldly imagine, as so many do, a whole chicken breast being plucked from a bioreactor, fried, and then slapped on your plate, then this is decades or more away, if it’s even possible.
Also, cultivating enough meat for a tasting menu is one thing. Being able to consistently cultivate enough meat to stock even a single supermarket shelf with products is a different story entirely. The former is happening today but the latter is currently fiction.
So, when will cultivated meat be on supermarket shelves? Right now this question can only be answered with conjecture and best guesses (keep reading to see ours). The reason is that there are a lot of very tricky problems standing in the way of it happening.
So, the answer to the question “when?” is: it depends on how quickly we can solve these problems. Indeed, the question we really should be asking right now is: “how will cultivate meat come to be on store shelves”?
Today we’ll introduce you to four key challenges facing the commercialization of cultivated meat (we should note that these are broad, and there are more factors that we’ve omitted for reasons of space). We’ll also highlight some of the players working to overcome challenges in the production and regulation of these products. In doing so, we hope to give you enough of an idea of the barriers so that you can make better-informed guesses with us.
Challenge #1: Technology
It’s still early days for the technology used to produce cultivated meat and significant developments are needed to increase efficiency and lower production costs.
The cost of producing cultured meat is currently high. 2021 estimates say between $1000 - $10000 per kg. A study in the Journal of Food and Agriculture estimates that cultivated meat could achieve a price of $63 per kg if significant advances in technology can be achieved. This could work for more premium meat products but is not competitive with the current price of lean wholesale meats. The GFI, a non-profit organization that supports the development of alt-proteins, commissioned estimates that suggest the cost of cultivated meat could drop as low as $6.43/kg by 2030.
While projections differ greatly, all agree that significant technological advances are required to cultivate meat at scale. So what are the technologies that need advancing? Let’s look at a few of the key ones.
These are tanks, similar to large fermenters, that provide the optimal conditions for cells to grow and form muscle tissue. Current bioreactors are not fit for this purpose for several reasons.
At present, the cultivated meat industry is using bioreactors from other industries, such as pharmaceutical production. These bioreactors are too small and don’t have the right kind of tech, like advanced sensors, to support optimal meat cultivation. Companies such as Ark Biotech are developing novel food-grade bioreactors which are specifically designed to support meat cultivation.
Food-grade or not, commercial-scale meat cultivation will require a lot of bioreactors. According to one analysis, a commercial-scale facility producing 22 million pounds of meat annually would require a third of the biopharmaceutical industry’s entire existing bioreactor volume. Such a facility would cost an estimated $450 million and account for .0002% of US meat production.
But we’re not just talking about one bioreactor to rule them all either. Commercial-scale meat cultivation likely requires lines of bioreactors that are optimized to support different stages of cell growth, maturation, and differentiation. Using today’s tech, a cultivated meat factory producing millions of pounds of meat would be made up of hundreds of different-sized bioreactors.
There are of course limits to how vast a facility could be in terms of space, cost, and operational efficiency. Instead, some companies are seeking to build larger bioreactors that can cultivate higher cell densities. The increased efficiencies would come with additional challenges though.
Currently, the largest bioreactors used for animal cell cultivation have a capacity of around 20,000L. Some companies, such as Good Meat, are working on developing much larger reactors with capacities as great as 250,000L. At this scale, it is challenging to ensure that all cells receive the necessary amounts of nutrients and oxygen during cultivation, however. Current solutions to this problem - stirring bioreactors more rapidly and pumping in more oxygen - risk killing the fragile cells and inhibiting cultivation.
Larger reactors also pose the problem of waste. In culture, cells excrete waste called catabolites. These contain toxins that inhibit cell growth. It’s possible to develop bioreactors that cycle out catabolites, but these are small-scale and low-volume. Higher volume reactors mean more waste to manage. Dealing with would-be waste will be one of the big challenges ahead for companies developing higher-volume reactors.
Currently, commercial-scale facilities and the advanced bioreactors that would fill them are hypothetical. But perhaps not for long as several startups and companies are working on testing the limits of what’s possible with innovative bioreactor design. Such companies include ABEC, the company developing Good Meats bioreactors, and also Unicorn Biosciences, a startup with a grand vision for modular bioreactors that can simply scale by adding more units.
Cultivating animal cells in a laboratory environment requires a suitable growth medium that provides the necessary nutrients and conditions for cell growth. The growth medium must also be kept free of contaminants, such as bacteria and fungi, which can cause infections and reduce the quality of the final product.
Currently, media accounts for most of the cost of cultivating meat. Two components in particular, growth factors and recombinant proteins, are currently very expensive. These two components represent as much as 99% of cultured media costs.
Traditionally, Fetal Bovine Serum (FBS) has been used in cell cultivation because it is a natural cocktail of most of the factors required for cell attachment, growth, and proliferation. Cultivated meat makers are seeking alternatives to FBS because it is extracted from the fetus of slaughtered cattle, so presents ethical concerns. FBS is also expensive and may contain components that contaminate a culture.
Serum-free media are currently being developed but are still expensive. Though companies are continually touting cost reductions. Even so, further reducing the cost of cultivated meat hinges on the development of effective and more affordable media.
There are a lot of innovators working to develop serum-free media for commercial meat cultivation. Japan’s IntegriCulture is building a system to feed cell growth without the need for FBS, potentially reducing the cost of cultivated meat by 1/60th. Cultivated meat maker Mosa Meats is also making progress to bring down the cost of its serum-free media.
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Another important part of cultivating meat is how you get millions of cells to form together into a muscle-like structure. In animals, bones and tendons are the scaffolds around which muscle forms. And while growing a whole steak in a bioreactor is lightyears away, cultivated meat companies are trying to cultivate cells that have some discernable meat-like texture, rather than just being mush.
Startups like Gelatex are developing affordable, edible, plant-based scaffolds that support cultured-meat cells to form fibrous structures. Cellivate, a startup spun out of the National University of Singapore, is developing solutions to realize cultivated meat, such as edible microcarriers that increase surface area in bioreactors to help control and promote cell growth. The company claims its processes are as much as 3x faster and more efficient than industry standards.
Challenge #2: Regulation
Before cultivated meat can be sold in supermarkets, it must be approved by relevant regulatory agencies, such as the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The approval process can be time-consuming and expensive, and it is not yet clear how these agencies will regulate this new type of food.
Different countries have different regulations and standards for food products. Cultivated meat companies will need to work with governments to prove their products are safe and have consistent manufacturing processes. They will also likely need to ensure their products pass existing checks for their analogous conventional meat product (much like UPSIDE Foods).
To date, only Singapore has approved the sale of cultivated meat products. Last year, the FDA granted GRAS status (generally recognized as safe) to UPSIDE Foods’ cultivated chicken in the US. Further approval is required from the United States Department of Agriculture before they can sell their products in the US.
Across the world, stakeholders are working together to progress the regulation of cultivated meat. For example, Japan has established a forum for relevant stakeholders to discuss regulation, and the US government has funded the establishment of a National Institute of Cellular Agriculture. There’s also international cooperation between stakeholders through associations such as Cellular Agriculture Europe and the APAC Society for Cellular Agriculture.
Many of the world’s leading economies are taking a positive stance on regulating cultivated meat. Singapore and, to an extent, the US, provide practical case studies for regulation too. Given this, it’s likely that regulatory hurdles to commercial meat cultivation will be overcome at a faster pace than technical ones.
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Challenge #3: Consumer Acceptance
Overcoming technical and regulatory hurdles will mean nothing if there’s no demand from consumers for cultivated meat.
There are several factors at play here, but one of the most significant is convincing consumers about the safety of cultivated meat. This publication’s research into Japanese consumers’ attitudes to cultivated meat found the majority were concerned about whether the products would be safe, with over 70% of respondents saying they didn’t want to try them. A recent study of Dutch consumers found that they perceive cultivated meat as “less safe” than conventional meat.
On the flip side, survey data so far shows that there are plenty of consumers who say they’re intrigued by cultivated meat. Over 50% of respondents to a GFI survey in western Europe reported they would buy cultivated meat products if they were available.
But high prices may hold up even the most avid enthusiast of cultivated meat. It has already been a significant barrier to consumer uptake of plant-based meat worldwide. Cultivated meat will launch as a premium product, so it’s unlikely to fly into general consumers' shopping baskets early on, even if it does make it to supermarkets.
Finally, cultivated meat products must hold up to animal ones in terms of taste and texture to get consumers to buy in. Existing reviews of Good Meat’s chicken - “It tastes like chicken” - are positive, suggesting cultivated meat is more promising in this regard than plant-based alternatives have been.
Innovations in cultivating animal fat also hold the potential to help plant-based and cultivated meat products deliver truly meat-like sensory experiences. Mission Barns has cultivated pork fat to add to plant-based sausages. It claims its process is 10x more efficient than cultivating muscle tissue. Israel’s Steakeholder Foods, an Israeli startup, is developing a 3D-printing process to layer fat and muscle cells to enhance the texture of their cultivated pork.
Challenge #4: Supply Chain and Distribution
A well-established and efficient supply chain is essential for the commercial success of cultivated meat. Supply chains must cover the cultivation of cells to the production of the final product and the distribution to supermarkets and restaurants. The development of a reliable supply chain will be critical for ensuring consistent quality and availability of cultivated meat.
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Realizing a world where meat can be cultivated at scale requires a new supply chain to be built. High-quality cell lines, media components, and other essential components will need to be available at a cost that is consistent with large-scale production. In many cases, this will require the building of new supply chains and the scaling of existing ones, such as amino acids, to be able to produce even a modest amount of cultivated meat.
Many of the ingredients required to cultivate meat are also fragile. They must be transported in a manner that maintains their quality and safety. If even a single bacteria contaminated the cells or media, it would be ruinous.
A cultivated meat supply chain, then, requires the creation of strict quality controls at every step of the way. Variations in cell culture conditions and processing can have a significant impact on the quality of the final product so these must be carefully regulated. Cultivated meats are food products, after all, so they must be produced in a tightly controlled manner that ensures no risk to consumer health.
Ensuring that meat can be cultivated in a scalable way while avoiding risks like contamination, is one of the big challenges facing the commercial future of this industry.
Wait, So When Will Cultivated Meat Be in Supermarkets?
Okay, so we haven’t directly answered the question. But we hope that we’ve shown that, actually, we can’t. Nobody can until more of the barriers, especially the technological ones, are overcome.
So as not to disappoint though, we can offer a best guess based on conversations we’ve had with industry insiders and reports we’ve read. We invite our readers to share theirs in the comments too 😁
In recent talks with colleagues from commercial food companies with insights into cultivated meat, we’ve most frequently heard “5 - 10 years, or even more”, as the timeframe to see cultivated meat products in supermarkets (that includes hybrids). Most agree that the current state of technology is nowhere near ready for commercial production. This roughly alines with the “hope” of UPSIDE Foods, which aims to have products in stores by 2028, or sooner.
Yet, even the CEO of the first company to sell cultivated meat in restaurants, Good Meat’s Josh Tetrick, has said he’s not even sure we’ll have cultivated meat at retail in “the next 30 years”.
Given what we understand about current technological roadblocks, what we hear from the industry, and the buzz of activity around cultivated meat, our guess would be a few cultivated meat products will be in supermarkets around 2030*. But we imagine these will be promotional, highly priced, and limited to a few stores in a few countries.
* Caveat: this guesstimate doesn’t apply to plant-based meat products enhanced with cultivated fat. This category seems to be making great progress and reportedly has fewer production hurdles than cultivated meat, so our estimate for this would be more optimistic.
What’s more important than our estimate though is…
How Would Cultivated Meat Come to Be In Supermarkets?
Cultivating meat for human consumption is a new field. It has been proven at a small scale. But this is not enough to become a sustainable source of protein for a world of over 8 billion people.
Now innovators are just beginning to wrestle with the challenges of commercial production. As you’ve read, there are many, and this article barely scratches the surface.
Yet, new discoveries and innovations are occurring day by day. Anyone of which could unlock the secret to much more efficient cell cultivation. It’s entirely possible that some stealth-mode startup somewhere is forging a new bioreactor that supports cell growth at much higher densities as we write.
What’s more, there is a lot of collaboration going on around the cultivated meat space that increases the likelihood of current challenges being overcome. Governments, Big Food companies, researchers, and startups are all working together to make cultivated meat a reality. With countries and regions establishing bodies to ensure that stakeholder interaction only grows, it’s a sure sign that the cultivated meat will continue to make progress.
So while there are good reasons to be skeptical about the potential of cultivated meat to be commercially viable, there are reasons to be optimistic too.
With that said, we’ve taken away a couple of key points from our exploration of this topic.
If cultivated meat is to feed a significant number of people, a lot more investment will be needed. Most projections made about commercial-scale meat cultivation assume huge levels of investment. Without this, we are unlikely to see the (yet to materialize) technological breakthroughs required to make meat cultivation viable at scale.
Investors in cultivated meat must understand the technological hurdles. It’s therefore vital that anyone investing in cultivated meat understands the science, technology, and nature of the challenges ahead. It’s not just that cultivated meat needs more funds, but it needs funds in the right places at the right times. For this, investors need a much greater depth of understanding than the rough overview we touched on today, for example. Ideally, consultations with an expert advisor from the field to help them do their due diligence.
Developing more advanced infrastructure is essential. Right now, the technology required to scale the production of cultivated meat, from serum-free media and advanced bioreactors to optimized cell lines, needs urgent investment.
Don’t put all your cultivated eggs in one basket. The size of the challenges facing the cultivated meat industry, and the amount of capital that seems to be required to potentially overcome them, give good reason to pause before investing further. Cultivated meat is just one of many solutions to the problem of a future sustainable protein supply. Other solutions, such as plant-based proteins, mycoprotein, and advances in conventional farming, also require investment and support. Everyone involved in sustainable protein - investors, startups, Big Food, and beyond - needs to stay up to date on the latest developments and decide how best to support the space.
That’s all folks
We hope you enjoyed reading the fruits of our research today as much as we enjoyed writing them. Due to time constraints, we couldn’t dive too deep into this topic, so let us know in the comments below if we missed anything important when considering the future commercial production of cultivated meat.
See you next Tuesday!
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