The big question:
But will the public actually eat this stuff ?
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.