Welcome to Pluripotent — it’s Thursday, December 31st, and here at the edge of a new year is a reason to look ahead at what 2021 may have in store for cellular agriculture. Feel free to leave a comment below or send tips through direct message. Follow me on @chasepurdy.
NEW YORK — Before we look to 2021, I think it is crucial to point out that the people behind cell-cultured meat achieved their greatest accomplishment yet—selling product to consumers—during a pandemic that turned our lives upside-down. Meanwhile, the entrenched meat industry slogged through the logistical nightmares (and scandals) associated with producing conventional meat.
Consumers already had climate- and welfare-related reasons to consider eating cell-cultured meat once it becomes widely available. Add labor rights to the list. Here’s a small sampling of stories that provide a snapshot of just how bad a year it was for the meatpacking industry:
More than 51,500 US meatpacking plant workers have fallen ill with Covid-19 since April, according to FERN, a non-profit newsroom that has tracked viral outbreaks within the food system.
Meatpacking plant workers in July filed a lawsuit against the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), alleging the work conditions inside a Pennsylvania facility weren't safe. The complaint alleged that the meat company failed to provide adequate protective gear or social distancing on the processing lines.
Also in July, Bloomberg Businessweek, unpacked the systemic issues of the modern meatpacking system, by then plagued with Covid-19 complications, in an article headlined, “US Meat Plants Are Deadly as Ever, With No Incentive to Change.”
In December, Tyson Foods fired seven of its Waterloo, Iowa plant managers after an investigation revealed they took bets on how many of their workers would fall ill from the coronavirus.
Meanwhile, seemingly sheltered from the pandemic storm, cell-cultured meat companies continued plugging away at their own products. In conversations with CEOs of companies based in Silicon Valley and Israel, all reported that the work of culturing meat never stopped, in part because workspaces that necessarily require sterile conditions allowed technicians to continue their jobs while remaining compliant with their respective government social distancing regulations.
This isn’t to say that the scaled-up cell-cultured meat production facilities of the future will automatically be 100% safe during a pandemic. But if their visions come to pass, the makers of cultured meats will be running operations that look and operate very differently than present-day meatpacking plants. By all accounts, they will be cleaner environments with no need for employees to work shoulder-to-shoulder for hours. And after a year of damning headlines exposing the downsides of the current meat system, perhaps the year ahead will further amplify the incentives for giving cultured meat a shot.
The Year Ahead
Here are some passing thoughts on what I’ll be paying attention to as we head into 2021. I would love to hear people’s feedback to any of these:
01. The edible space race was won, now it’s a tougher game.
Undeniably, Eat Just made history in 2020.
The San Francisco-based company won the edible space race to get cell-cultured meat to market first when Singapore’s government became the first on earth to give cultured meat the regulatory green light. That teed up the opportunity to sell it to real consumers in real restaurants. And it happened. On Dec. 19, patrons of a restaurant called 1880 snacked on Eat Just’s chicken nuggets. The nuggets were about 70% cultured meat and 30% plant-based.
For those who think a lot about how progressive climate policy intersects with the global food system, this event is a prime example of how Singapore is taking the lead. While reporting out Billion Dollar Burger, it was always a toss-up between Singapore, Israel, the Netherlands, and the US as the places most likely to approve the sale of cultured meat first. With a regulatory framework in place in Singapore, what comes next will be especially interesting.
Now that the milestone of selling cultured meat somewhere in the world has been reached, scrutiny over product quality will likely intensify. It won’t be enough to be the first to sell cultured meat in markets outside of Singapore. What I expect we’ll see is reporters, consumers, and general skeptics comparing and contrasting the products that companies introduce.
Bloomberg’s Mark Cudmore tasted Eat Just’s cultured meat nuggets at 1880 in Singapore, and while his quick-take review was mostly positive, he repeatedly pointed out the lacking appearance of the nuggets:
These types of inevitable criticisms will continue to crop up as the likes of Future Meat Technologies, Memphis Meats, Mosa Meat, and others introduce their products to the market. Interesting to me is that the CEOs of some companies would not have sold a hybrid-product in Singapore. Mosa Meat’s Mark Post once told me he felt consumers should first be introduced to 100% cultured meat product, otherwise the nascent industry would risk confusing people.
02. Speaking of critics, expect more media attention.
Attention from journalists will increase in 2021. Now that one company has made history by selling cultured meat to consumers, there will be other ‘firsts’ in markets outside Singapore, each drawing headlines.
A piece of media news that caught my attention toward the end of 2020 was that Vox hired Kenny Torrella.
It’s noteworthy because Torella doesn’t come from a journalism background and, in fact, has a long history of animal welfare activism. Before being tapped to help set the editorial agenda at Vox as a deputy editor (with specific responsibilities to lead coverage of the animal agriculture industry) he spent about five years at the Humane Society of the United States, and close to four years at Mercy for Animals. I saw the job posting for this position, and the thing that struck me most about it was that Vox was looking for someone familiar with the effective altruism movement. How that sort of knowledge, and Torrella’s background, will translate into journalistic coverage will be interesting to watch. To be sure, having an organization with the size and reach of Vox regularly churning out stories about the changing factory farming system will inevitably include coverage of cultured meat, how it’s regulated, and what its ascendance implies for animal agriculture.
Of course, increased coverage will come from more outlets than just Vox. I imagine we’ll be seeing stories from the climate desks of Bloomberg, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, as well.
03. Bioreactor designs will be the nerdy topic du jour.
The bioreactors of today simply were not designed with culturing meat in mind. So what the cultured meat industry will be doing in the coming months (or years) is finding engineering expertise that can jive well with biological expertise.
Back in July, Jess Krieger (@jesscakri), the CEO and co-founder of Bay Area-based Artemys Foods explained in pretty stark language how good bioreactor design for cultured meat will need a cross-disciplinary mind meld.
“Engineers often make the mistake of approaching biology as an engineering issue, and they underestimate the principles of a biological living system. The technology to completely control biology doesn't exist.”
I’m just scratching the surface on how complex this issue can be, and companies aren’t tackling the issue uniformly. Some are designing their own bioreactors in-house, some are sticking with already-available machines, others are working with third-party bioreactor engineering companies.
No matter how a bioreactor is created, another one of the big issues with a scaled-up system will be figuring out how to clean it.
Every time fat or muscle tissue is harvested from a bioreactor in a production facility, it will need to be deeply—and I mean deeply—cleaned. Any trace of unwanted bacteria could ruin the next batch. But figuring out how to build a cultured meat bioreactor that can do this quickly, affordably, and to standard is a hurdle that’s often cited, among many.
04. Singapore gave regulatory approval, Netanyahu grabbed a fork.
Shortly after Singapore announced it was giving Eat Just regulatory approval to serve cell-cultured meat to consumers in the city-state, the prime minister of Startup Nation himself took a trip south of Tel Aviv, to Rehovot. It was there that Benjamin Netanyahu became the first head-of-state to publicly try cell-cultured meat. He was at Aleph Farms, in particular.
“I see it as a possible industry where Israel can become a world leader,” Netanyahu said.
This to me is a signal that Israeli regulators, not to be totally outdone by their counterparts in Singapore, will feel some pressure to finish building a regulatory framework to get cultured meat into its own market. If I had to guess which country would be next to give approval, I’d say the US or Israel.
05. The specter of acquisitions is looming.
There are a lot of companies working on cell-cultured meat at this point, and they’re located all over the world doing very cool work to develop meat from a lot of different animal species. Some of these meats are hybrid products—comprised of both animal and plant tissue—and some are pure cultured meat. And as the systems to produce them begin to scale, I would not be surprised if one of the world’s big conventional meat companies decides to pull the trigger and acquire one of the startups.
So far we have seen that companies such as Tyson Foods and Cargill are willing to sprinkle investment dollars into meat alternatives. At what point, though, will the executives at these companies be convinced they should join in the effort? I would not be surprised if this happens sometime in 2021, especially as regulators in the US close in on giving regulatory approval to sell cultured meat in the United States.
And when that moment happens, it will mark the beginning of a significant shift in food.
“I think we'll see a regulatory system fall into place in the US, and I think you'll probably see another company or two come to market in Singapore. I wonder if the the general conversation will see the difference between a test market and going to market. They are extremely different things.”
Reading between the lines of that comment, Selden doesn’t think 2021 will be the year we see cell-cultured meats and seafood in supermarkets. There’s a big difference between a small rollout in across a handful of restaurants and “the market” writ large.
In other words, for those aspiring to bring cultured meat to the world, 2021 will be the year of the restaurant—something that hearkens back to the strategy Impossible Foods used when rolling out its plant-based burger.
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading, and I hope everyone has a happy near year. My 2020 became complete with a positive review of Billion Dollar Burger by the dean of agriculture reporting, Jerry Hagstrom, in The Hagstrom Report. It got me gliding into 2021 with a fresh look toward what comes next.