The big ques­tion:

But will the pub­lic ac­tu­ally eat this stuff ?

San Francisco Chronicle - - FOOD + HOME - By Jonathan Kauff­man Jonathan Kauff­man is a San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle staff writer. Email: jkauff­man@sfchron­i­ Twit­ter: @jonkauff­man

The ick fac­tor. That may not be the of­fi­cial name of one core ob­sta­cle faced by com­pa­nies try­ing to rein­vent meat, but it’s a phrase they’ve grown used to hear­ing.

For most Amer­i­cans, meat is al­ready ab­stracted, de-deathed, chopped and pro­cessed. The clos­est many of us ur­ban-dwellers get to the source of our meat is to pass farms along­side the high­way at 70 miles per hour, or per­haps walk by a yard with a chicken coop. And that’s the way we seem to like it, even though we refuse to give it up.

Tofu, which has been on main­stream gro­cery shelves for at least four decades, still re­pels some meat eaters, even those who refuse to eat any meat with a bone in it. And the thought of eat­ing a burger patty or a fil­let of fish that was ac­tu­ally a mass of an­i­mal cells grown in a vat can seem like one more step to­ward some dystopian sci-fi fu­ture in which we all live in biodomes on Mars and re­cy­cle our urine into min­eral wa­ter.

In 2014, the Pew Re­search Cen­ter polled Amer­i­cans on their at­ti­tudes to­ward fu­ture tech­nolo­gies such as self-driv­ing cars and brain im­plants. When asked about “meat grown in a lab,” just 20 per­cent of re­spon­dents said they would eat it.

So what will it take to con­vince us to switch? As the or­ganic in­dus­try has found, con­sumers may say they’re mo­ti­vated by al­tru­is­tic con­cerns about the en­vi­ron­ment, but what re­ally moves sales are per­sonal health ben­e­fits, whether that means fear of pes­ti­cides or the idea that or­ganic pro­duce has more nu­tri­ents.

Ac­cord­ing to a 2017 re­port from mar­ke­tre­search firm Tech­nomic, three-fifths of Amer­i­cans re­ported that they eat at least one meat­less meal a week. Two-thirds of Mil­len­ni­als claimed to eat plant-based meats on a reg­u­lar ba­sis. Asian Amer­i­can and Latino con­sumers were sig­nif­i­cantly more in­ter­ested in th­ese prod­ucts than white and African Amer­i­can con­sumers.

Sales of plant-based meats are grow­ing — 2 per­cent a year for frozen, 8 per­cent for re­frig­er­ated — but they still only rep­re­sent a $606 million mar­ket, ac­cord­ing to data from spe­cialty-prod­uct con­sul­tant firm SPINS. That’s com­pared to around $200 bil­lion in sales for U.S. meat and poul­try, ac­cord­ing to the North Amer­i­can Meat In­sti­tute. Th­ese growth rates are hardly the econ­omy-dis­rupt­ing ones that in­no­va­tors and ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists are bet­ting on.

Michele Si­mon, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Plant-Based Foods As­so­ci­a­tion, says, “The most im­por­tant thing we can do is con­vince peo­ple that the al­ter­na­tive tastes good. As long as they think they have to sac­ri­fice on taste we’re lost.”

That’s partly why com­pa­nies like Im­pos­si­ble Foods and New Wave Foods talk up their tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion. They’re call­ing on eaters to put their faith, once again, in food pro­cess­ing, to be­lieve that the same in­ge­nu­ity that cre­ated box cakes and Tang could do what home cooks can’t do on their own: make wheat gluten taste just like beef.

Prod­ucts like gelatin and egg whites pro­duced by yeast cells may be the eas­i­est sell for the gen­eral pub­lic, since man­u­fac­tur­ers can slip them into ready-to-eat foods. Com­pa­nies try­ing to cre­ate in vitro meat, how­ever, can’t avoid the chal­lenge. They have to make rad­i­cal feats of biotech­ni­cal in­no­va­tion palat­able.

Mem­phis Meats, a San Le­an­dro com­pany that has had early suc­cess cul­tur­ing beef, chicken and duck, ar­gues that its prod­ucts will have health ben­e­fits by pro­tect­ing against sal­mo­nella or E. coli con­tam­i­na­tion. They also ar­gue that the ick fac­tor isn’t re­stricted to lab-grown steak. “Peo­ple eat meat de­spite how it’s made, not be­cause of how it’s made,” says VP of busi­ness de­vel­op­ment Steve Myrick.

The early re­sis­tance to cul­tured meat sig­naled by the 2014 Pew Re­search sur­vey may al­ready be fad­ing.

A stu­dent group at Florida At­lantic Univer­sity con­ducted a se­ries of sur­veys on “cul­tured” meat, their re­sults cur­rently un­pub­lished. Of the 3,200 stu­dents sur­veyed (av­er­age age 20), 60 per­cent re­ported that they would eat cul­tured meat. Af­ter read­ing of the tech­nol­ogy’s sup­posed health and en­vi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits, that num­ber in­creased to 80 per­cent. A sec­ond on­line sur­vey con­ducted with peo­ple of all ages re­turned sim­i­lar fig­ures.

Kristo­pher Gaster­atos, a mem­ber of the sur­vey team and pres­i­dent of a new or­ga­ni­za­tion called the Cel­lu­lar Agri­cul­ture So­ci­ety, says that ter­mi­nol­ogy will help ac­cep­tance. “In vitro meat,” “lab-grown meat” and even “cel­lu­lar agri­cul­ture” sound clin­i­cal. Like many of the com­pa­nies in the field, he prefers the suit­ably bland “clean meat.”

Uma Valeti, CEO of Mem­phis Meats, be­lieves that ed­u­ca­tion and ex­po­sure to the idea of cul­tured meat can only work in his com­pany’s fa­vor. “Th­ese are ac­tive con­ver­sa­tions that we have to have at din­ner ta­bles around the world,” he says.

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