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Lab-Grown Meat Pushes Forward

Start-up company Memphis Meats says that in the future, consumer meat products won’t start in a pasture or a feedlot. Rather, they will start in its laboratories.

It's harvesting muscle cells from real animals and growing them into edible meat products. As the leader in this fledgling industry, the company has gained attention over the last two years by showcasing lab-grown poultry and meatballs, and it vows to have cost-competitive commercial products within 10 years. 

It has also made a splash by securing venture capital funding from meat industry giants Cargill and Tyson Foods.

The “regular” meat industry – the one that still uses live cows and pigs – is taking notice and pushing back against what it calls fake meat. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association has made consumer protection from fake meat claims one of its policy priorities this year.

Successful Farming magazine recently interviewed Eric Schulze, Memphis Meats’ vice president of product and regulation, by email about the company’s progress and future plans.

SF: What is the current status of Memphis Meats product development and progress to commercialization?

ES: Most of our resources are focused on reducing our cost of production and increasing production scale. We are laser-focused on ensuring we bring a safe, scalable, and delicious product to market first and foremost.

SF: What products are you working on first – poultry, beef, pork?

ES: We’re proud to have already publicly unveiled a range of different products, from beef to chicken to duck. We continue to develop our technology platform to ensure we can provide the types of meat we all love to eat.

SF: Are you on track to be a cost-competitive alternative to traditional farm-raised meat?

ES: Yes, our goal is to eventually produce meat that is cost-competitive with conventionally produced meat. We have seen our cost of production drop by multiple orders of magnitude in the two years we’ve existed as a company, and we expect to continue that progress.

SF: Can you describe the process of culturing meat in an incubator/lab? What is the feedstock to grow the meat – is it corn or fiber or anything close to what we feed to animals? Is it possible to estimate a conversion rate?

ES: We start with high-quality cells. Cells are building blocks of all food we consume. At Memphis Meats, they are the foundation of our approach. We make food by sourcing high-quality cells from animals.

We grow those cells inside of what we call cultivators, aiming for an input-to-output caloric ratio of 3:1. In the cultivators, we feed our cells a mixture of vitamins, amino acids, fat, salt, and sugar. The cells grow as they eat this food. The cell feed we use is comprised of the same macronutrients that livestock animals eat, although in a different form. You can think of this as a farm at a cellular level, with the cells grazing and growing until they are ready for harvest.

SF: What regulatory issues do you anticipate?

ES: Memphis Meats believes that stakeholders across government, including FDA and USDA and the meat and poultry industries, should work together to clarify how the existing regulatory framework applies to clean/cultured meat, while supporting innovation.

SF: Have you had interaction or conversations with traditional meat industry, including farmers who see you as competitors? 

ES: We’ve had many good conversations with folks at all levels of the existing meat supply chain. We’re fortunate to have both Cargill and Tyson Foods as investors in Memphis Meats. We have striven to create a diverse coalition of folks who might have very different perspectives, motivations, and life experiences, but who can all unite around a common goal: feeding 9.5 billion people by 2050. Members of the conventional meat industry are a crucial part of that coalition. 

SF: Do you see your business as working with traditional farmers, or are they competitors?

ES: We at Memphis Meats believe that there is room for many perspectives in food and agriculture, and those perspectives share a common goal: feed a growing world safely. We absolutely envision partnerships with food and agricultural producers of all stripes. Traditional agriculture is required to source the best muscle cells from high-quality, healthy animals.

Second, we see traditional farmers and producers as partners in feeding the world. With an expected 9.5 billion people to feed by 2050, we will need to deploy every food production tool in the toolbox to meet demand. We also believe that we will play a significant role alongside conventional animal agriculture in expanding consumer choice at the meat counter.

Editor's Note: November 2018 will mark the third year Successful Farming magazine dedicates an entire issue to technology. Our focus for this special mid-November issue is The Future of Food.  How we produce and grow food is changing not only to meet the growing demands from consumers but also to meet a growing population. Because technology will be at the center of this transformation, this issue will highlight 12 technologies and their potential to change how we produce food in the future. One of the technologies we explore is fake meat.

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