During the coronavirus pandemic, alternative protein products have soared in popularity, prompting nearly every multinational food corporation to hasten to bring its own versions to market. Frequently plant-based products have been patties or processed nuggets — “everyday” foods easier for companies to produce — that aim to ease the climate effects of the worst offender: Americans eat nearly 50 billion burgers a year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Aleph Farms’ new 3-D bioprinting technology — which uses living animal cells as opposed to plant-based alternatives — allows for premium whole-muscle cuts to come to market, broadening the scope of alt-meat in what is expected to be a rich area of expansion for food companies.
Several other companies are sprinting to capture what is expected to be a robust appetite for what is often called “cultivated meat.” San Diego-based BlueNalu has announced its intent to bring cell-based seafood products to market in the second half of this year; Israel-based Future Meat Technologies and Dutch companies Meatable and Mosa Meat aim to have cultivated meat products in the market by 2022, each with proprietary methods of growing meat tissues from punch biopsies from live or slaughtered animals.
But the lack of a regulatory framework could stymie the companies’ race to market. In December, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu became the world’s first head of state to eat cultivated meat, and that same month Singapore became the first country in the world to grant regulatory approval for the sale of cultivated meat. It remains unclear when other countries will follow suit. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration has not set a date for when it will rule on the matter.
The new meat-making process, developed with research partners at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, prints living cells that are incubated on a plant-based matrix to grow, differentiate and interact to achieve the texture and qualities of a real steak. It has a system similar to an animal’s vascular system, which allows cells to mature and nutrients to move across thicker tissue, resulting in a steak with a similar shape and structure to traditional cow tissue before and during cooking.
“It’s not just proteins. It’s a complex, emotional product,” says Aleph chief executive Didier Toubia. He says the product mirrors the sensory quality, texture, flavor and fatty marbling of a traditionally produced rib-eye.
Toubia’s claim will be quickly tested. Unlike plant-based burger patties or meat strips used in a more complex dish, Aleph’s rib-eye will often be served unadorned and at the center of a plate — with no bun, sauce or other ingredients to disguise it. Toubia said the company will even be able to adapt the steak to a specific country or palate, for instance, making it more or less tender, according to a consumer’s taste.
“With cows, the breed has a role, but the quality comes from the feed. With our cultivated meat it is similar,” Toubia said. “We control the cultivation process, and we can design meat specifically for a market, adjusting the amount of collagen and connective tissues and fat, to tailor meat to specific requirements. The idea is not to replace traditional agriculture but to build a second category of meat.”
Toubia acknowledges it will still take some time to bring products to market and to scale up so its products are price-competitive with the traditional ones. With a focus on higher-end, higher-quality products, he says, being first is not a primary goal.
“From our standpoint, time to market is important, but time to acceptance is more important,” he said. “The companies that drive impact aren’t necessarily the ones first to launch — it’s Tesla versus the Nissan Leaf. And in any new technology that is initially expensive, like solar panels, cost goes down due to economies of scale.”
Toubia says Aleph Farms has invested $14 million in the development of its thin-cut steak unveiled in 2018 (which did not use 3-D bioprinting) and now this thicker, fattier rib-eye. He estimates it will be five years to achieve cost parity for cultivation of meat products at scale.
Seventy companies are now moving quickly to bring to market beef and other meat, poultry and seafood products derived from muscle tissue grown in a lab with cells harvested from a living animal. Last year was a landmark one for the industry, according to Caroline Bushnell, director of corporate engagement for the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that promotes alternatives to traditional meat, dairy and eggs. Memphis Meats had a record-breaking $186 million second round of funding, followed by Mosa Meat’s $75 million round later in the year.
In March 2019, the FDA and the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service agreed to establish a joint regulatory framework for human foods made from cultured cells of livestock and poultry, with the FDA overseeing cell banks and FSIS overseeing the processing, labeling and packaging of these products. In October 2020, the FDA issued a request for information on the labeling of cell-cultured seafoods, but no date has been set for the announcement of regulatory details.
Toubia is optimistic about being granted approval.
“Agencies have been very proactive in reaching out to industry and open to learning the space early on to assess the safety of such products,” he said. “We’ve been interacting with the USDA and FDA for the past two and a half years, and we believe the U.S. may be one of the first countries to clear cellular meat.”
Although the March 2019 agreement is the most current formal document specifically describing FDA and USDA interactions on cultured animal cell foods, the FDA said in a statement that it encourages firms working on the culture of animal cells for food use to contact the agency early in the development phase to begin discussions.
“The agencies have identified three specific topics (premarket assessment, labeling and transfer of jurisdiction) to be advanced by designated working groups and are collaborating in other ways,” the FDA said in a statement. The agency’s spokeswoman did not offer dates by which these will be advanced.
Toubia says the company’s first products will reach the marketplace in the second half of 2022. He says because cultivated meat can be traced back to a specific cell, there will be greater transparency than with traditional animal agriculture, with no need for antibiotics. And because meat will be grown in a sterile environment in a closed system, it will be shipped with certified zero pathogens, which can potentially help preserve meat for a longer time.
Traditional animal agriculture has pushed back against plant-based meat, claiming common nomenclature was confusing to consumers, which has resulted in a flurry of state legislative activity and litigation around labeling. It is not clear whether the USDA will approve cell-based products to be labeled as “meat.”
The North American Meat Institute, a trade organization, sent a letter to the USDA in October calling the for mandatory labeling of cultivated meat and poultry products.
“It is critical that food labeling is not deceptive or misleading to enable consumers to make informed choices about the products they purchase,” said Sarah Little, the institute’s vice president of communications. “As an industry, we support a fair and competitive marketplace that lets consumers decide what food products make sense for them.”