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Culturing an Expanding Meat Market

by Alan Wang, B.A. | October 2, 2018

For the typical meat lover, a properly prepared steak can be difficult to forego. It’s calorie-rich. It’s satiating. When seared, it generates an unmistakable aroma. It makes mouths water. The marbling of its fat is downright enticing. And, of course, the taste and texture elicit familiar feelings of pleasure. However, meat consumption is associated with an array of negative effects on human health and the environment.

A growing number of epidemiological studies have found statistically significant associations between the consumption of red meat or animal fat and health issues. For example, one study found evidence that consumption of processed meats and animal fat but not vegetable fat increases the risk of developing colon cancer. Moreover, meat production is astonishingly inefficient. A recent study noted that every 100 calories of feed used to raise a pig generates only 9 calories of meat fit for human consumption. For cows, the conversion efficiency is a mere 3%. Meat production also inflicts considerable damage on the environment. Indeed, meat and dairy production together account for around 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, some consumers simply refuse to eat animal meat out of moral objections to animal slaughter or concerns about how animals are treated. Religious obligations have prevented others from consuming meat.

Funding Companies to Address Consumer Consumers

The aggregate of these consumer concerns notably presents an opportunity. Several companies have sprouted up over the past few years to provide products that capture the taste, texture, and even aroma of meat derived from livestock but require little to no animal slaughter. These companies likely came to fruition out of a convergence of the fact that our scientific expertise has advanced far enough for scientists to plausibly pull off such a task with a willingness from venture capital firms to fund such lofty endeavors. These companies have taken a variety of tactics to bring a product to market. “Cell-based meat” companies seek to first isolate cells from live animals and then propagate such cells in a production facility to massive scales so that they can drastically reduce the number of animals slaughtered. “Fake meat” companies, which are distinct from cell-based meat companies, intend to use plant-based ingredients to produce food that tastes and smells like animal meat.

Culturing Meat with Memphis Meats

Memphis Meats, a venture-backed company currently based in Berkeley, California, has attracted significant attention from both investors and the media. It recently raised a $17 million Series A round of financing as well as an investment from Tyson Foods of an undisclosed amount. The company has attracted ample attention in part due to its mission to feed the world. The imperative to feed a growing population coupled with “the need for including sustainably scalable ways to produce meat is the main driver behind [Memphis Meats’s] existence,” the company noted in an interview. It has also accrued significant attention in part due to the scientific strategy behind making its product. Rachel Valenzuela, PhD, a cell line engineer at Memphis Meats, described how the company first isolates a variety of cell types for culture in a laboratory. A group of scientists then screens through these cells, searching for ones that can divide in culture numerous times while retaining their genomic stability.

Dr. Valenzuela explained that her team can notably screen for cells that have specific amounts of sugars, saturated fats, and unsaturated fats at this stage. She noted that the fat content “dictates what the oxidation products [of the Maillard reaction] are going to be” and that the company is interested in identifying cells with different lipid contents. The Maillard reaction – a chemical reaction that occurs when amino acids and reducing sugars are heated – is largely responsible for the browning of food and the generation of distinct smells and flavors. Notably, different mixes of sugars and amino acids generate different Maillard reaction products and thus produce foods of different taste and smells. Memphis Meats thus has an opportunity to craft the taste and smell of their products by choosing cells with different lipid and sugar contents.

Chosen cells are eventually sent to a cultivation team for growth in large incubators and eventually to a bioprocessing team that grows them on a massive scale in a bioreactor. While this process may appear straightforward at face value, identifying the “right” cell with the desired characteristics is no small feat. Dr. Valenzuela underscored that many “cells can exhibit desirable phenotypes in a small scale” but lose such traits “in a large scale.” There thus must be “a second layer of screening” to assess the usefulness of certain cells in producing an edible product. What about the media used to culture these cells? Scientific research labs often use fetal bovine serum (FBS) as a source of nutrients for cells grown in culture. Using serum derived from cows would undermine the company’s mission. Dr. Valenzuela stated that the company is using FBS for research and development only and that Memphis Meats will eventually use an “animal-free media” formulation for large-scale production.

This approach will significantly reduce not only the number of animals killed to feed a growing human population but also the environmental costs required to raise the livestock. Given the fact that their product is, in fact, animal cells, the team at Memphis Meats prefers to call their product “cell-based meat” rather than “fake meat.” Indeed, they do not see their product fitting into the “alternative meat” market and instead see their product in “the ‘conventional’ meat market, [which] is approaching $1 trillion globally with demand expecting to double by 2050.” As a result, the company noted that their target market is the “mainstream meat lover.” Memphis Meats is currently making significant investments into their research and development, attempting to identify the ideal cell types and optimizing the media mix to culture those cells. Although their “initial products may be sold at a price premium” given the high research and development costs, Memphis Meats eventually expects their product “to have a lower cost of production than [that for] conventionally-produced meat.”

Making Plants Taste Like Meat

Impossible Foods has taken a different strategy. Instead of growing animal cells in culture, the company has managed to use plant-based products to craft food that tastes and smells like animal meat. Their strategy has proven to be quite successful thus far. The company recently raised another $114 million dollars to bring the total amount of money raised since inception to around $400 million dollars. Their burger is sold in over 3,000 locations, and they recently expanded their offerings to the Hong Kong market. In addition, a new facility in Oakland, California allows production of 500,000 pounds of their “fake meat” every month.

According to the company’s “2018 Impact Report,” the burger itself is comprised of a number of ingredients, including textured vegetable protein, coconut oil, soy, potato protein, and wheat protein. The meat-like taste is derived from the use of leghemoglobin from soy plants. Just as the myoglobin in beef releases heme when cooked, the leghemoglobin also releases heme when heated. Impossible Foods’s own study notably found that their leghemoglobin preparation “was nonmutagenic and nonclastogenic” and that there were “no clinical observations, body weight, ophthalmological, clinical pathology, or histopathological changes attributable” to administering leghemoglobin to rats in a laboratory. The company currently uses an engineered yeast (Pichia pastoris) strain to produce massive amounts of leghemoglobin, which the FDA recently classified as “Generally Regarded as Safe”.

Perhaps one of the most notable aspects of Impossible Foods’s success is its marketing strategy. Initial efforts to sell the product were centered on approaching high-end chefs and restaurants such as Chris Cosentino’s Cockscomb or Traci Des Jardins’s Jardinière. Selling the product at such restaurants could justify their higher price point, and the limited availability contributed to the intrigue and aura of exclusivity and desirability. Many restaurants today now use the product because it actually boosts their sales – perhaps the growing media attention and customer curiosity has enabled many restaurants to increase the profits by including the Impossible Burger on their menu. Umami Burger, for example, reported a 38% increase in customer traffic and 18% increase in sales after they started selling the Impossible Burger. Impossible Foods appears to be taking the same approach in Asia, initially selling their burger only at high-end restaurants in Hong Kong.

Consumer Challenges Ahead

Memphis Meats and Impossible Foods are both taking on lofty goals to solve very real problems plaguing meat consumption. While there may have been some initial hesitation from consumers, Impossible Foods’s marketing strategy of targeting high-end restaurants may have broken through many of the consumers concerns about such products. Given that Memphis Meats is still actively developing its first product for consumers, it is still unknown exactly how the company will market and promote their product. However, the fact that Memphis Meat’s product is actual animal meat, the company may not have a difficult time selling their offerings. Their challenges likely lie in substantially reducing the cost of their product and overcoming the perception consumers may have that laboratory-grown meat is somehow unnatural. The drawbacks to raising livestock for slaughter and eventual human consumption have been well-documented. How companies respond to these drawbacks and feed a growing population is being written at this very moment.

Alan Wang, B.A is a science communication fellow at Biotech Connection Bay Area. He’s also a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley

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