Lab-grown meat could make strides in 2022 as start-ups push for U.S. approval

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Josh Tetrick, co-founder and CEO of cultivated meat start-up Eat Just, has a vision: He imagines a day when meat grown in a lab is available everywhere from Michelin-star restaurants to street vendors and fast food chains.

But more investment — and regulatory approvals — will be needed to get there. Cultivated or cultured meats are real animal products made in labs and commercial production facilities. Right now, the process is costly, but researchers and entrepreneurs say over time manufacturing will become more efficient and less expensive. If consumers switch to cultivated meat, it could help reduce greenhouse gases from agriculture and ease climate change.

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“This isn't inevitable,” Tetrick said in an interview. “This could take 300 years or it could take 30 years. It's up to companies like ours to do the real work of building the engineering capabilities … and communicate directly with consumers about what it is and isn't, and how it can benefit their lives.”

Investors have poured some $2 billion into the space in the last two years, according to Crunchbase data. The year ahead will bring more investment. Eat Just and others are working to win regulatory approval in the United States from the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture.

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Nick Cooney, managing partner at LeverVC, which invests in the sector, said he expects approval as early as this year.

“There are several companies in this space that are building out large pilot scale facilities to produce cultivated meat products, but to produce at quite significant volumes, that's going to involve a lot of capex, a lot of steel, and that's just going to take time,” he said.

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Eat Just has had big breakthroughs over the past two years. In Singapore, it received its first regulatory approval in December 2020 for its Good Meat cultured chicken and it has since been approved to sell new types of cultivated chicken there, including chicken breast, tenders and shredded chicken products.

“It is real meat,” Tetrick said. “And instead of needing billions of animals and all the land and the water, and all the rain forests you typically need to knock down to make that happen, we start with a cell. You can get the cell from a biopsy of an animal, a fresh piece of meat or a cell bank. Now, we don't need the animal anymore. Then, we identify nutrients needed to feed that cell and … we make it in a stainless steel vessel called a bioreactor.”

Eat Just also sells plant-based egg products made from mung beans in stores including Whole Foods and Publix in the U.S., and it employs more than 200 people.

To date, it says, more than 700 people in Singapore have been served its cultivated meat products — a number Tetrick hopes to rapidly scale up as it receives approvals in other countries.

Eat Just

Once approved, Eat Just said it has already laid the groundwork to hit the ground running. The company's Good Meat division announced a $267 million capital raise last year to build vessels and systems that will ramp up production in both the U.S. and Singapore, where it currently manufactures, with the goal of having that equipment operational in the next two years. It also announced in August it would be building a facility in Qatar, in partnership with Doha Venture Capital and Qatar Free Zones Authority, but much more capital will be needed to build bioreactors large enough to scale up.

According to nonprofit research advocacy group The Good Food Institute, there are more than 100 start-ups working on cultivated meat products, and larger companies are also ramping up their own operations.

JBS, the global protein giant, acquired BioTech Foods in late 2021, investing $100 million to enter the cultivated meat market and build a research and development center in Brazil. The Spanish biotech company is another leader in the cultivated food space, focusing on developing biotechnology for producing cultivated meats.

These developments come as consumers have shown increased concern about climate change and a desire to change their eating habits to fight it. Plant-based meat products have become more ubiquitous, popping up on menus like KFC's or showing up in the grocery aisle at Target. Cultivated meat could provide Americans with another alternative and could coexist with products made by companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods.

“The world will not get to net-zero emissions without addressing food and land,” said Caroline Bushnell, vice president of corporate engagement at the Good Food Institute.

“Our food system's role on climate change is generally underappreciated, but industrial animal agriculture is a major contributor,” she said. “Alternative proteins, including cultivated meat, can be a key aspect of how we reduce the emissions from our food system. It won't be possible to actually to meet our obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement unless industrial meat production goes down.”

Chef Jose Andres, a restaurateur and founder of nonprofit humanitarian group World Central Kitchen, wants to be part of that solution. Last month, he joined the board of Eat Just's Good Meat division and has pledged to sell its cultivated chicken at one of his U.S. restaurants pending regulatory review.

Promises like that can help move Tetrick closer to his vision. But costs also have have to come down as well.

“A local diner or a big fast food chain is not going to take this if it's a whole lot more expensive than conventional meat. They're going to take it when it's close — or even better, when it's below the cost. And that's what we need to fight for,” Andres said.

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