Monday, June 19, 2023

"Why you won’t be eating cell-cultivated meat any time soon"

From Fast Company, June 17:

Cell-cultivated meat may appear to be proceeding ever closer to being on sale in the United States, but production, cost, and formulation issues are still bedeviling the one-time disruptors.  

This month, the USDA approved labeling of the food once called lab-grown meat. In quick succession the regulatory agency granted Eat Just and then Upside Foods approval of what the startups could call their product. The verdict: cell-cultivated meat.

We may now know how these products will be labeled, but little else can be assumed about the future of technology-enabled meat.

Everyone wants to take guesses, myself included, on when this stuff will make it to market, if it can scale, and whether it will live up to its promise as a boon in the fight against the climate catastrophe. Even academics are turning over the Magic 8 Ball. In a preliminary lifecycle analysis, UC Davis researchers determined that lab-grown meat may fail to be better for the environment than today’s retail offerings.

Beyond endless questions, one thing seems for certain: When and if cell-cultivated meat lands on our plate, it will be blended with non-animal material––essentially plants. Like beef, future meat will depend on basic crops like soybeans and legumes.

Why cultivated meat can’t say no to plants

In Singapore, the only country where companies can legally sell cultivated meat to customers, Eat Just’s chicken offering is roughly 74% chicken cells and 26% plants. CEO Josh Tetrick says that his team is doing what’s best for consumer acceptance. “Our process works, but having binders makes it a more optimal product,” he says. “We could do 100% if we felt like it, but the structure is better.”

Tetrick isn’t using plants to make us happier; he’s doing it to lessen the load of production. Plants offer more functionality than animal cells, which, uncritically, is mush. Will some percentage of plants in cell-cultivated meat appease vegans or vegetarians? Probably not. Ninety-nine percent of vegans will undoubtedly steer clear. That leaves us with carnivores and flexitarians who won’t change their habits until the stuff is dirt cheap and considerably more delicious.

This hybrid approach goes beyond adding plant-based proteins and oils for better palatability. Plants help cover up what’s missing from meat cells grown outside the body of an animal, allowing companies to replicate the “scaffolding” that gives form to foods like salmon or steak. “We’ll be using plant-based scaffold when the product launches in restaurants,” confirms Aryé Elfenbein, cofounder of Wildtype, which is growing salmon in labs in San Francisco. Most companies, he tells me via email, will need to rely on plants for “structurally complex products.”....