Cell-Based Meats: Coexist, But Don’t Roll Over

February 19, 2020

Cell-Based Meats: Coexist, But Don’t Roll Over

by  

Steve Hixon


Picture this:  An omnivore (who leans toward carnivore), a vegetarian and a vegan converge at 6:00 p.m. They stare in silence while taking turns scrolling through the Uber Eats app. Frustration builds… this group has elevated the term “dining nightmare.” The conflict used to be much simpler: pizza or burgers? Italian or Tex-Mex?  Now these three competing paradigms meet and no one can agree on what to eat. How did this mixed-up mash-up of people intersect with one another?  Well, it’s my family. Yes, I’m a meat lover who promotes meat experiences for a living. I married a vegetarian and we collectively produced a VEGAN! (Side note: My other two darlings love meat). So when it comes to our family’s eating adventures, I strive for coexistence. My wife aims for tolerance. Any way you portion it, it is today’s reality and tomorrow’s future.

This intro offers personal context as I share my journey through the Cultured Meat Symposium I attended last November in San Francisco. As a meat marketer, I knew I needed to learn more about what is happening with cellular agriculture.

“Soylent, the creator of meal replacement drinks, has put up “PRO GMO” billboards to spread a science-first message to eaters”

With cell-based meats on the horizon,
GMOs are gaining favor.

With my eyes wide open and no expectations, I was immediately swarmed by attendees who were my vegan daughter. There’s a movement here. It was small but nevertheless there was a passion that rivals my “conventional meat” passion, as the conference coined it. The participants convened by way of Germany, South America, Canada, Japan and from across the U.S. As a long-time attendee of traditional meat conferences, I could tell we weren’t in Kansas anymore. Attendees here represented equipment companies that make bioreactors and not just one type of bioreactor. There were stir tanks, rocker tanks, shakers and loops, oh my!  There were lawyers discussing government regulation, with the takeaway being that we are 9-18 months from regulatory allowance for public consumption. Scientists and entrepreneurs were communicating about cell density, scaffolding DNA cells for growth, modular bioprocessing and “media” which is the term for the food source used to fuel the growth of the DNA cells.

The cell-based industry, which recently formed AMPS (Alliance for Meat, Poultry, Seafood Innovation), included organizations such as Memphis Meats, Aleph and Just, who are testing cell-based products for human consumption. There are more than 50 organizations around the globe working diligently to bring this technology to the market. And for the pet lovers, there were four businesses in attendance who discussed engineering cell-based pet food using DNA cells from rats!  (Yes, even rats have an advocacy group.) Species-specific platforms were introduced for beef, chicken, tuna, salmon, shrimp and even the genetic crossing of kangaroo and lamb!  I’m left perplexed as to how GMOs are moving from being a major no-no that started a label revolution to what seems like overnight acceptance. The thought of extracting DNA cells from an animal and cultivating them in a bioreactor is beyond the Space Odyssey. But it’s happening and it’s coming, and it will produce a paradigm shift.

This journey to vegan utopia was eye-opening but not shocking. I feel as if my personal life prepared me for this peek into the future. There are many families who have my similar dynamic or some version of it. The difference is I am a supporter and advocate for the conventional meat industry, which I bet most of those other families don’t have. At Midan, we keep our pulse on meat-eating consumers. We understand population growth and the demand to feed so many more people in the coming decades. What became very clear to me at the conference is this food production method is on the horizon and we must embrace coexistence now.

But first, we must coexist with one another as an industry. We must own our attributes. We must write our own narrative based on the fundamental elements our product has carried for centuries: nutrition, taste and a sense of community. We must tell our story, our purpose, our values and announce our commitment to future generations. If we focus on us, we can be confident that no matter what is said by the “Joker” in Hollywood, our consumers will trust the quality and attributes our product delivers.

So, don’t be overly concerned with what cell-based meat companies are up to. Instead commit to and engage in meaningful dialogue with our meat-eating consumers.

And if anyone has any suggestions for a meal that an omnivore, a vegetarian and a vegan can all agree on, please let me know!

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