Here are the big takeaways I believe the meat industry should know about cultured meats:
1. The Momentum is Strong
This year’s symposium was attended by nearly 1,000 participants from across the globe. Over the course of three days, 26 presentations were given by 41 researchers, venture capitalists and startup founders. All the presenters had one undeniable thing in common – they passionately believe that cultured meats may be the only way to provide enough healthy protein for our growing world.
The traditional meat space isn’t the only arena that cultured meats is currently playing in. In addition to creating beef, pork and poultry for human consumption, creating proteins that can sustain life on other planets was a big topic of conversation in some of this year’s sessions, such as Orbital & Deep Space Cellular Agriculture. The pet food industry is also in play. Currently, cats and dogs consume about 25% of the total calories that come from animals in the U.S. Cultured meat startups like Because Animals would like to reduce that to 0%.
While the monetary investment in the cultured meats space isn’t yet to the level of plant-based proteins, it is still significant with at least $330M from over 120 unique investors, as I learned during the Urner Barry Global Protein Summit last month. Notably, more than half of the investments in cultured meats were made in 2020, including the largest individual round of funding – $161M by Memphis Meats.
2. Consumers: Will They Embrace Cultured Meat?
Throughout the conference, many speakers touched on who the cultured meat consumer is – first and foremost, individuals who have ethical concerns about eating meat (whether they are currently meat-eaters or not). One of the conferences’ speakers, Dr. KC Carswell, Vice President of Process Development for Memphis Meats, highlighted the current state of consumer acceptance of cultured meats, sharing a statistic that 65% of U.S. consumers state that they would eat cultured meat. The research referenced was published in 2017 and specifically looked at the potential U.S. consumer base. When asked “would you be willing to try in vitro meat (for which a definition was given),”65% of consumers responded “probably” or “definitely yes.” However, when asked if they would be willing to eat in vitro meat as a replacement for traditionally raised meat, only 31% answered in the affirmative.
Midan asked a similar question in our Meat Consumer Segmentation 2.0 research in 2019 and found that only 16% of meat consumers were willing to try “cell-based meat.” How different Dr. Carswell’s statistics are from our own was notable for some of our team members attending. Both studies gave similar definitions of the products in question, explaining that the meat is grown in a lab from animal/muscle stem cells and not currently on the market. In further comparing each survey’s methodology, I first noted that Midan only surveyed meat consumers, while the 2017 study included 12% of respondents who responded whose dietary preferences did not include red meat. The surveys were also run on different survey platforms, which can cause variants in the samples. Because of these differences, Midan Marketing researchers stand behind their results that a smaller number of meat consumers are ready and willing to try cultured meats.
3. The Timeline: Sooner Than We Thought
Likely the biggest question those of us in the meat industry are asking is: Will cultured meats be ready in six months or six years? In a panel of venture capitalists, Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed of KBW Ventures said he thinks we will see the first cultured meats hitting select foodservice operations by the end of 2021. He was the only speaker I heard put a stake in the ground on the timing of cultured meat products. During the second week of November, however, a new restaurant in Tel Aviv, Israel, became the first foodservice establishment in the world to serve lab-grown chicken meat. The restaurant has been set up as a test kitchen for and is adjacent to production facilities for SuperMeat, an Israeli cultured chicken meat start-up. Currently, diners are not required to pay for the lab-grown chicken but rather are asked to provide feedback on the product.
There are still a few hurdles the cultured meats industry needs to clear before having a product that is scalable for retail sales in the U.S. That includes possibly the most difficult and time-consuming hurdle of them all – regulatory. What restrictions will the USDA and FDA place around the creation of these meat products? Will they approve systems that are in place for biopharma for cultured meats or will they impose additional regulations? These questions (and many more) were all discussed but unanswered during the conference, making it nearly impossible to predict a realistic timeline for cell-based meat’s market entry. But we know it’s coming – and the traditional meat industry should be prepared for its arrival.