The big lab meat experiment

Polls suggest the UK public aren’t ready for so-called ‘clean meat’ – but change may be on the way. By David Burrows.

Consumer polls must always be taken with a pinch of salt (especially those that quiz a small number of people online and are dreamed up by public relations firms), but this one caught my eye.

The PR agency Ingredient Communications commissioned Surveygoo to conduct an online survey of 1,000 consumers in the UK and US. Respondents were told that cultured meat was “real meat grown from cells in a laboratory and not sourced from animals” (not quite true: currently at least, fetal bovine serum is an essential ingredient in the process, but let’s go with it as it’s unlikely to be used in any commercial products).

They were then asked: would you be willing to eat this type of meat if it were available to buy in shops and restaurants?

In the US, 40% said they’d happily try this so-called “clean meat”, as the industry is increasingly beginning to refer to it. In the UK, however, it was just 18%, and 43% said no way. This isn’t that surprising – US shoppers are more than happy with food tech like genetic modification, and in San Francisco a number of companies are getting close to commercialisation of lab meat.

Other studies have also shown a similar resistance to the tech: in March 2015 Mintel showed 28% felt it was “disgusting”, 19% “dangerous” and only 17% thought it might be a good solution to help feed the world. Go further back, to 2005, and the European Commission found that 54% of Europeans would never approve of lab-grown meat (it was 21st out of 22 in a list of technologies people liked the idea of; a chip implanted in the brain to improve memory achieved a higher approval rating).

But back to the latest poll. Look at the breakdown of results by people’s current diets and things get much more interesting. In the UK, 18% of meat eaters are willing to try clean meat. But among vegans the willing rise to 50% (though not one vegetarian said they’d like to try it). In the US this rises to 64% of vegans, against 38% of meat-eaters who would be comfortable consuming a leg of lamb made in a lab.

That’s great news for the embryonic lab meat industry, you might say: it’s boom time for veganism as more and more people look for ethical and sustainable alternatives to livestock products (the carbon and water footprints of lab meat are a fraction of those for traditionally reared meat). However, it’s the meat eaters the companies are looking to entice – because they are by far the biggest part of the market.

“For the first time, we’re replacing meat with meat – not a meat alternative,” the Memphis Meats CEO and cofounder Uma Valeti told Forbes recently. “That gets Tyson and Cargill [which have both recently invested in Memphis] enormously excited because they’re in the meat business. There’s the potential to transform feeding the world as we know it.”

But only if they can get enough people to try it. At the moment there are no commercially available products, but there’s a belief that things have improved dramatically since that day in August 2013 when the first lab-grown burger was tasted by a couple of food critics during a news conference in London. “The prototypes are incredibly compelling,” Liz Specht, a senior scientist at the Good Food Institute, told me recently.

A lot of progress has been made on structuring clean meat, for example, with work now geared towards ramping up production to benefit from economies of scale, and continuing to develop the technologies to produce the structure of meats such as marbled steak. “It is simply a matter of time before the technology enables this platform to scale to a point that it can produce meaningful quantities of meat at reasonable price points,” Specht said.

As well as Cargill and Tyson’s investment in Memphis, PHW, one of Europe’s largest poultry producers, has just recently made a “strategic investment” in the the Israeli biotech and food-tech startup SuperMeat. “The smart money is moving as the traditional meat model becomes much less of a financially attractive long-term investment than the emerging solutions,” said Jennifer Pardoe from the plant-based food development agency PB2B.

With the financial muscle of “big meat” companies behind the food-tech firms there is every chance the costs will continue to fall close to, or perhaps below, those of traditional meat. The involvement of the big agri-food companies could be a curse as well as a blessing, though: it’s easy for a cool startup to sell its business as ethically minded but how about a global food behemoth?

One company that wants to stay niche is MosaMeat, the firm behind the 2013 burger. Its CEO, Peter Verstrate, is targeting 2021 for “small-scale, premium and local” distribution in high-end restaurants. “It’s more of a statement than a commercial venture,” he told me in a recent interview for Poultry Business. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a big future for clean meat in the mainstream.

"There’s going to be a point in time where you have a choice,” he explained. “There are two products in front of you: they are the same apart from the fact that for one of them you need to kill animals and contribute to global warming and water [scarcity]; and for the other you don’t.” It’s a compelling argument (and he didn’t even mention other benefits that could woo health-conscious consumers: the removal of saturated fat; the additional of nutrients; and antibiotic-free), and that’s why he is taking consumer surveys with the required dose of sodium. “There are no products yet so there is no way to assess consumer behaviour and sales.” That could soon change.

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