That’s why some cultured-meat startups have turned their attention, for now, away from trying to reproduce an entire hunk of meat from scratch and toward the aspects of meat that impart the most flavor.
Fat is the focus for Peace of Meat, a startup based in Antwerp, Belgium, that aims to provide high-quality cultured fats, particularly duck and chicken fat, to other players in the industry. The company’s biologists extract stem cells from a fertilized chicken egg, cultivate them, and then grow fat cells in a bioreactor.
“The protein part of plant-based meats is actually pretty good,” says founder David Brandes. “But when you bite into it, you suddenly feel like it’s soy. Those products are missing the magic ingredient: animal fat. That’s what drives texture and flavor.”
Make no mis-steak
One evening in early October my wife and I went to Hawksmoor, a steakhouse in central London. It was our wedding anniversary and our first night in a restaurant since the pandemic lockdown began. For all the very many good reasons to eat less meat (environmental, ethical, health), steak still has that special-occasion tag. When it came, the T-bone we chose was beautifully charred from the grill on the outside, and pink, sweet, and succulent inside. It was juicy, packed full of flavor–in a word: heaven.
Cultured meat is years, if not decades, from delivering anything that approaches such an experience. Most cultured prototypes are closer to the consistency of ground meat. But if and when something approximating a real steak hits your plate, there’s every chance that it will be a hybrid.
In November, Krieger left Artemys to found a new blended-meat startup, Ohayo Valley. Instead of a burger, Ohayo Valley will be working on making a full steak, complete with marbled fat, out of a combination of plants and beef cells. She says she hopes to have the first taste tests of the steak later this year.
Just, a firm based in San Francisco, is working on chicken nuggets that were granted regulatory approval to be sold to consumers in Singapore in November. Eventually, it plans to create a full chicken breast made of nothing but cultured meat. Like my steak, a chicken breast gains its shape and texture from a complex mix of elements, including collagen, elastin, and tendons. Re-creating all of this in a bioreactor is no simple task.
“A 100% product would be an amazing thing, and I believe we will get there–it’s just a lot more difficult,” says Nate Park, the firm’s director of product development and a former gourmet chef. In the meantime, Park and his team are working with edible, plant-based scaffolds that can act as connective tissue. “We have these beautiful systems we already understand,” he says. “We can take our cultured mass and apply the two things together. It’s like a chocolate-and-
This is also the vision of Israeli firm Aleph Farms. Its proof-of–concept steaks, first shown at the end of 2018, don’t look quite ready to take on my Hawksmoor T-bone–but they’re recognizably meat, at least. Aleph, which partnered with 3D Bioprinting Solutions on the stunt aboard the International Space Station, expects to open its first production plant by the end of 2021, according to CEO Didier Toubia.
Toubia says the trend toward blended products is here to stay. “I believe in convergence,” he says. “There will not be competition between plant and cultured meat; there will be collaboration and integration between the different solutions.”
The Good Food Institute’s report estimates that cultured products will compete with certain premium meats, like bluefin tuna or foie gras, within the next three years. By the 2030s, hybrid products might be able to undercut the cost of conventional meat, especially as the plant-based-meat industry grows in parallel, according to Specht. An analysis by management consultancy Kearney estimates that cultured meat, in some form, could take as much as 35% of the global meat market by 2040. The dream of animal-free meat is, it would seem, getting closer to reality.
It’s clear that blended products will have to pave the way. But even ignoring the substantial technical obstacles that remain, a big question looms: Will consumers like these foods? The image of meat grown in giant vats, monitored by scientists in lab coats, has a distinct sci-fi ick factor that doesn’t compete well with the cachet of organic, farm-to-table meat from animals that have spent their lives dancing in pastoral bliss.
“We’re not going to stop causing the enormity of harms we do to animals because we care about chickens and pigs–it’s going to be because we create a new technology that renders the current system obsolete.”
Blended meat might, then, do one final job for the cultured-meat industry: help it gain acceptance. People who are already pretty comfortable with the idea if not the flavor of plant burgers will soon get to try them with a sprinkling of cultured cells to add some extra meaty oomph–an Impossible Plus, perhaps. Many of the people I spoke to suggested that this might win the average customer over more easily than an entire lab-grown meat product.
That’s the hunch Krieger’s been working from ever since her run that night. And it’s one more and more people in the industry share.
“Facts alone don’t change people’s behavior,” says Shapiro. “We didn’t stop exploiting horses because we cared about horses; we stopped using them because new tech came along that rendered their exploitation obsolete. We’re not going to stop causing the enormity of harms we do to animals because we care about chickens and pigs–it’s going to be because we create a new technology that renders the current system obsolete.”
That system of raising and then slaughtering animals has stood for millennia and won’t be easily upended. Cultured meat–first blended, and then in pure form–will only stand a chance if it tastes at least as good as traditional meat. Krieger, for one, is gung-ho. “I think there’s going to be a huge shift in consumer perception once people actually get to try cell-based products,” she says, “and realize they taste amazing.”