A decade ago, consumers might have laughed into their McFlurries at the idea of non-meat burgers at the drive-thru. Who could have imagined that a patty called the McPlant would be rolled out at select McDonald’s, with the fanfare once reserved for a McRib? Yet plant-based foods have swiftly become a mainstream product and a global industry worth $20 billion. That makes food-tech scientists optimistic about an even more exotic frontier: Real beef, but from a petri dish.
In labs from Singapore to San Francisco, scientists have been developing methods of generating actual meat cells in a lab — everything from cultured caterpillar cells that mimic the properties of a fleshy burger to cow muscle cells, dripping with blood, built upon a scaffolding of spinach.
Many of these products haven’t reached the marketplace, but they’re coming. In 2020, Singapore granted regulatory approval to the first lab-grown chicken nugget for mass consumption. San Francisco’s Upside Foods — which is developing lab-grown chicken, beef, and duck — has a contract with Michelin-starred chef Dominique Crenn. She has pledged to serve Upside’s product at her restaurants as soon as it becomes legal in the U.S.
Lab-based meat boosters tout their products as a new global food source and a way to save the planet. Animal agriculture is responsible for a significant percentage of greenhouse gas emissions. Manure and fertilizer are major sources of water pollution. In a viral 2021 TED Talk, Isha Datar, executive director of New Harvest, a Cambridge, Mass.-based cellular-agriculture research firm, called lab-based meat a “ticket to a new food system” that could “create the products we know and love at a fraction of the emissions.”
“Somewhere, consumers have drawn a line and said, ‘Oh, food’s too far. I want technology in my pocket and in my life, but not in my food.’”Adam Melanos, CEO of Chew
It’s unclear whether lab-grown meat can go mainstream as quickly as plant-based food — or whether it represents a different calculation. Traditional meat is still big business. Eco-friendly buyers consider locally grown, locally sourced food, including meat, a sacred mantra.
“Everyone wants the latest and greatest computer, the latest and greatest wearable tech,” says Adam Melanos, CEO of Chew, a Boston-based food innovation lab. “But somewhere, consumers have drawn a line and said, ‘Oh, food’s too far. I want technology in my pocket and in my life, but not in my food.’”
Still, the swift success of plant-based meat, along with a rise in alternate products like insect-based foods, gives Melanos and others hope that cultivated meat will follow. It’s just a matter, they say, of finding the right audience — and making the right pitch.
Lab-grown meat first made headlines in 2005, when University of Maryland doctoral student Jason Matheny — who later founded New Harvest — co-wrote a paper describing a process for growing meat cells in the journal Tissue Engineering, which is admittedly a far cry from Bon Appétit.
The article outlined how stem cells could be extracted from an animal and grown in cultivators, or bioreactors. The cells, fed nutrients like amino acids and glucose, would rapidly divide into muscle, fat, and connective tissues, just like traditional meat.
That year, The New York Times speculated that the technology could be ready “in a few years’ time.” But it has taken longer than that, not just to develop the lab processes, but also to imagine a market.
“Nobody likes to feel like they’re part of an experiment,” says Michael Leonard, CEO of Boston-based Motif FoodWorks, which develops technologies to help plant-based foods look and taste like the real thing — such as a plant-based dairy product that stretches and melts like real cheese. Consider the lingering resistance to genetically modified foods — which some detractors have dubbed “Frankenfoods” — despite a lack of evidence that they’re detrimental to human health.
As plant-based meat — made from ingredients like soy protein, coconut oil, and methylcellulose — has progressed in the marketplace, many companies have worked hard to demystify the science behind their products. Impossible Foods’ packaging, for instance, endeavors to make plant-based meat feel like a lifestyle, not a lab experiment, using bright colors, clear language, and instructions on talking to skeptics. Its website even has an online guide that advises young consumers on how to talk to their parents about a plant-based diet; it deliberately mimics a sex-ed class, with sections labeled “Confusing Feelings,” “The Earth’s Body is Changing,” and “That Awkward Convo.”
“Current food production is pretty gross. We get to avoid that if we’re making things in hyper-sterile environments.”Kate Krueger, managing partner at Helikon Consulting
Now, cell-based companies are following a similar playbook. Vow, an Australian startup focused on harvesting cells from exotic animals, has a website that looks like Goop crossed with Eric Carle, with a peach-hued background, Jacqueline Susann-style font, and whimsical sketches. Finless Foods, an Emeryville, California-based company that produces plant- and cell-based tuna, doesn’t just showcase glossy fish photos on its social media feeds. A recent post included the “dos” and “don’ts” of cell-cultured jargon: Please, call it “cellular agriculture,” rather than “sci-fi meat.”
“When people are confronted with terms like this, they get incorrect ideas about the production and what these products actually are, creating a psychological barrier,” says Finless’ chief strategy officer, Shannon Cosentino-Roush. Special lingo also creates an in-crowd feeling; these companies need to cultivate cells, but also affinity.
Peeling back the curtain on food production is another way to make lab-based products sound less intimidating, Roush says. “The process, though refined and fascinating, borrows from the ways in which we make beer and your favorite cheeses,” she says. “We also produce in a clean, well-regulated food facility and not a lab.”
Indeed, some scientists believe that lab-based meat would get a boost if marketers leaned into the appeal of food grown in controlled environments, far from farms and slaughterhouses. “Every day, every week there’s a new problem with food contamination or COVID-related issues with food, right? Or meat-packing plants, and so on,” says David Kaplan, a cellular agriculturalist and professor of engineering at Tufts University.
Kate Krueger, managing partner at Cambridge, Mass,-based Helikon Consulting, is more blunt. “I don’t like to go for low blows, but current food production is pretty gross, and I say that as an omnivore,” says Krueger, whose company specializes in alternative proteins and high-tech food. “When you think about how vegetables are grown, they’re grown in manure. There’s a lot of filth that goes around, even in milk production. We get to avoid that if we’re making things in hyper-sterile environments.”
Even so, a physical cow (or chicken, or pig) is a formidable thing to abandon. Meat is a cultural touchstone. We eat burgers at barbecues and baseball games; we carve turkey on Thanksgiving or have a roast at Christmas. Traditional menus spur fierce loyalty. And pushing against meat can be polarizing, especially across generations: Think of the mom who rolls her eyes when you announce on your first visit home from college that you’re vegetarian.
“If we said we were taking away burgers, all hell would break loose,” says Maureen Timmons, the former director of dining services at Northeastern University and a leader of the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative, a nationwide network of colleges and universities researching how to effectively promote plant-forward diets in campus dining halls. At Northeastern, for instance, chefs have tested out new dishes on students (Lentil Bolognese, anyone?) and hosted plant-focused cookbook authors and chefs in demonstration kitchens. Timmons says Menus of Change has discussed introducing cell-based meat, as well.
Colleges could be the perfect places to build a lab-based meat market from scratch, says Amy Chen, chief operating officer of the Berkeley, Calif.-based food-tech company Upside. “Gen Z consumers, more than any generation before them, care about the planet and their role in preserving it,” Chen says. “They are willing to vote with their wallets, and they will bring the rest of the world along with them.”
Other lab-based meat companies are eyeing a different route to market: giving their products an upscale allure. In this vision, cell-grown meat could become the gustatory equivalent of driving a Tesla. It’s already happening: In Singapore, lab-grown meat is on the menu at members-only club 1880. In February, Finless offered cell-based-tuna samples at the swanky South Beach Wine & Food Festival.
“They’re going to the high-end restaurants where the clientele are much more vegan and more environmentally friendly folks,” says Glenn Gaudette, a professor of engineering at Boston College who develops lab-based meat.
To a high-end market, the lab-grown process could have other advantages. The cell-building process makes it possible to produce specific replicas of animal meat, which could make rare delicacies more accessible. “One company I know is working on jamon iberico, which is this very specific product made in Spain: marbled fat from a pig with a special genetic lineage that feeds on acorns for all of its life,” says Helikon’s Krueger. “They can get these specific terroirs because they have cell lines that are from these animals.”
Ultimately, food experts say, it’s flavor — rare or common — that will make or break the future of alternative meat. “Taste will remain the number-one thing that companies need to get right in order to attract consumers, but then also get consumers to adopt once they have tried these products,” says Emma Ignaszewski, a strategist at the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that promotes plant- and cell-based meat.
And while plant-based meat companies have sometimes struggled to promise that their products look and feel like the real thing, experts say, lab-created meat won’t have that disadvantage. It will taste exactly like meat — since, on a molecular level, that’s what it is. Close your eyes, banish all thoughts of a petri dish, and you’re eating Granny’s pot roast.