This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Where’s the Beef? Lab-Grown Meat is Finally on the Menu, first released on July 11, 2023. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
BRITISH BROADCASTER: US regulators have given the green light to the sale of lab grown chicken products at selected restaurants. Two companies, Good Meat and Upside Foods, have received approval.
REPORTER: For the first time, US regulators approve the sale of chicken made from animal cells. It allows two California companies to offer lab grown meat to restaurants.
FEMALE BROADCASTER: And all new tonight, lab grown chicken is coming to DC this summer.
MALE BROADCASTER: Yeah, right. The US Department of Agriculture just gave it the green light and we’re now learning celebrity Chef Jose Andres will serve it in one of his restaurants.
CYNTHIA GRABER: That meat, the chicken that’s being grown in vats in California, it might be coming to restaurants, but we went straight to the source.
ZACK TYNDALL: So this is what it looks like when it comes out of, our extrusion process. It’s pretty simple. This is more like our whole muscle type.
TYNDALL: And I’m just reheating these in a, like a beurre monte, just a butter-water glaze.
GRABER: That’s really pretty.
NICOLA TWILLEY: It’s getting the grill marks. It photographs very well.
TWILLEY: Hashtag no filter. I mean we all know Instagram performance is key for a 21st century food.
GRABER: Instagram aside, the promise of being able to eat meat that is not from an animal, that can be grown in a vat using animal cells, it’s been imagined in science fiction, it’s been promised by scientists for decades, and now finally it seems like it might be real.
TWILLEY: That chicken in a butter glaze looked pretty real, for sure. But would it really taste like real chicken? That’s what we wanted to find out.
GRABER: We of course are Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, I’m Cynthia Graber—
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And this episode, we’re exploring the weird and wonderful world of well—it’s been called a lot of things. Lab grown meat, in vitro meat, cell culture meat. We’re calling it cultivated meat this episode, because that’s what’s most of the companies seem to have settled on for now.
GRABER: So of course the big question for us is taste, but we have a lot of other burning questions, too. Like can you actually make a complicated piece of meat, you know, fat and muscle and bone and all that, can you grow that in a lab?
TWILLEY: And if you do, can you possibly grow enough of it to feed the carnivores of the world? And can you sell it for the same kind of price as regular meat?
GRABER: And if all of this does work out, will it actually be better? Better for land and water and animals and workers and the climate? Does this technology mean we can actually have our burger and eat it too?
TWILLEY: Chicky nobs here we come! This episode is supported in part by the Alfred P Sloan foundation for the public understanding of science, technology, and economics as well as the Burroughs Wellcome Fund for our coverage of biomedical research. Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network, in partnership with Eater.
KASIA GORA: Our cells started as a small muscle biopsy. So, a one centimeter cube of tissue from a calf in Ohio.
GRABER: Kasia Gora is the chief technology officer and co-founder of SCiFi foods in the Bay Area. Actually, all the companies we visited are in and around San Francisco. And she walked us through the process of growing beef outside a cow’s body.
GORA: So we had a veterinarian do that biopsy using sort of the most advanced animal welfare practices. And that sample gets shipped to our laboratory, where we isolate different cell types from that muscle. We freeze those down and those are our starting cell lines.
TWILLEY: We’ve talked about meat substitutes on Gastropod before, things like Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meat and Quorn and seitan crumbles and all that good stuff. That’s all made from plants, dressed up to look and taste like meat. This, what Kasia’s making, is different.
GRABER: This process starts with actual animal cells that, as Kasia said, were removed from a living animal. By the way it’s still alive, and it lives in an animal sanctuary. Then Kasia and her team isolate the particular cells that they want, they put them in a vat called a bioreactor in a body-temperature bath, and they feed the cells what those cells need to grow and multiply.
GORA: I like to compare it to Gatorade. So basically, it’s media that has sugar in it, because cells eat sugar. And amino acids, vitamins, minerals, trace elements.
TWILLEY: As well as food, they need some other things that a cow would normally provide the cells in its body: fresh oxygen, which get bubbled in, and specific chemicals that tell cells its time to grow. And then, after about a week, hey presto! There are lots more cells and it’s time for harvest.
GORA: So we use a centrifuge to apply some small G-forces, and then basically the cells settle to the bottom, the liquid’s on top, you get rid of the liquid, and that’s it. Our downstream processing is approximately nothing. So we just wash the cells and harvest them. That’s it.
GRABER: And then you have cow muscle cells and they’re basically identical to the cells in your steak or your hamburger! Which sounds wild. Not many companies making this type of food want to remind you that it’s super weird, but SCiFi fully embraces the weirdness.
GORA: We’ve taken that little bit of a risk to, to call it sci-fi foods instead of something that is referencing more of a traditional agricultural past because we think we’re making an amazing future people will be excited to eat.
TWILLEY: For a long time, this process—it really was science fiction. Kasia has made it sound straightforward, but it’s incredibly difficult to successfully get cells that are used to growing inside a body, to grow outside of it.
GRABER: This science comes out of a field called regenerative medicine, which is trying to figure out how to grow human cells and human body parts to use in medicine, for transplants. The earliest pioneers experimented on animal cells.
BEN WURGAFT: It was in 1907 that the American embryologist Ross Harrison demonstrated the technique that we call tissue culture or cell culture. By successfully getting amphibian nerve cells to proliferate under glass.
GRABER: Ben Wurgaft wrote a book called Meat Planet, Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food.
TWILLEY: In the 1920s, a French scientist called Alexis Carrel picked up on this work—Carrel is known as the father of transplant science—he won a Nobel prize for his work.
WURGAFT: So Carell publicized his efforts to grow avian cardiac tissue, that is to say chicken hearts under glass, to get it to proliferate and to survive.
GRABER: It wasn’t an actual beating heart, but apparently he managed to get heart cells to grow. He wrote a book about growing organs out of the human body and he paved the way for future scientists to pick up on these ideas and try to take them further.
TWILLEY: When Alexis Carrel was doing this, the idea of growing functioning tissue outside the body was total speculation. And it kind of still is—even today. There’s some tissues we can grow bits of, like mini strips of liver tissue and heart tissue. And we can grow cells, like muscle and skin cells. But we still can’t really grow full and fully functioning human organs outside of the human body.
GRABER: But while all this science was going on—and remember, it’s really really difficult science, a hundred years on and we’re still trying to crack it—those challenges didn’t stop people from imagining what this science could do for our food supply.
LAURA BURCH: In 1932, Winston Churchill predicted cultivated meat in his essay, 50 years hence. And I love this quote from him: “we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”
GRABER: Typical politician, promising more than he can deliver. That’s Laura Burch she works at Mission Barns, it’s another company making this new high-tech meat.
TWILLEY: So Churchill thought we’d be eating lab-grown chicken by the 1980s. And as you probably already have realized, that did not happen. But actual scientists were intrigued by the idea that we could use these medical breakthroughs to grow food too. And in the late 1990s, a scientist called Morris Benjaminson—he was asked by NASA to look into whether astronauts might be able to use this technology to grow their own meat in space. And after a lot of work, he and his colleagues were the first to successfully grow a filet of fish, in a dish, in a lab. Admittedly, it was a goldfish, and no one actually ate it, but still, proof of concept.
GRABER: At around the same time, a couple of artists working with people in a lab in France decided to grow edible animal cells as a cultural commentary.
WURGAFT: One of the most important experiments involved taking cells from frogs, cultivating them. And then serving them under controlled circumstances to French people. As food. At an art exhibition at Nantes, France.
TWILLEY: We should say, at this early early stage, these lab grown animal cells didn’t live for very long, and there weren’t very many of them at all. But, again, it was proof of concept.
GRABER: Meanwhile, nearby in the Netherlands, the Dutch were working on the very same challenge. Not for art, not for astronauts, but for everyday food for everyday people.
WURGAFT: There was a, a Dutch team that had received a grant from the Dutch government through the efforts of Willem Van Elen, who was a businessman and for many decades, a fan— putting it mildly—an ardent admirer of the idea of growing meat in labs.
BURCH: He thought about cultivated meat because he experienced food insecurity as a child you know, during the Second World War.
TWILLEY: Food insecurity is putting it mildly. Van Eelen was a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp, so he was basically starved. After the war, he became a medical doctor. And he saw the potential for this experimental medical technology to make sure no one ever went that hungry again.
BURCH: And so he worked on this starting in the fifties. And in 1999 he received the first industry patent for cultivated meat.
TWILLEY: Van Eelen’s research was taken up by another Dutch scientist, Mark Post. And, after years of work and with a lot of funding, from the Dutch government and also from one of Google’s co-founders, he grew the tens of billions of meat cells you need to make…a burger!
MODERATOR: Everyone sitting here with bated breath is dying to see what’s underneath the cloche. So, can you do the honors and, and lift the lid on your creation?
MARK POST: I can.
BROADCASTER: The world’s first test tube burger has been unveiled.
GRABER: This moment—this was the turning point. At the time, Mark Post was a researcher at the University of Maastricht, and in 2013 he unveiled his creation to an audience that was incredibly eager to take a bite. Ben was watching online.
WURGAFT: They then cooked it and had, or had it cooked. And had a team of tasters eat it on the internet broadcast from London with media representatives from any international paper or paper with international reach, you care to name. And it was indeed a sensation.
POST: It’s made of the cow cells. It’s beef as we know it. But we enhance the color with, red beet juice and some saffron. And there is some bread crumbs and a binder in it. And that’s pretty much it.
WURGAFT: It wasn’t a perfect copy. And the tasters noted the difference from what they would think of as the genuine article.
TASTER 1: There’s quite some intense taste. It’s close to meat. It’s not that juicy. Uh, the consistency is perfect.
BROADCASTER: It’s not yet cheap or created easily. It has cost 250,000 pounds to make, and five years of research and production up until this day.
WURGAFT: So we’re not talking about something that one could imagine scaling up. We’re talking about a process of the same scale of much medical experimentation.
TWILLEY: Still, it was a landmark moment. For the very first time, people had eaten meat that was grown outside of an animal body, no slaughter required. It was a scientific triumph.
GRABER: This was exciting enough just from a scientific perspective, but other people like Joshua Tetrick, he’s the CEO of Good Meat, which is one of the two companies that just got approval to sell their cultivated chicken—he saw what Mark Post did and he dreamed of a future where we get all our meat without any slaughtering.
JOSHUA TETRICK: We want the majority of the meat that’s consumed on this planet not to require the slaughter of an animal. It’s the slaughter of an animal that we think is sort of the initial problem. Because when you need to slaughter an animal, you need billions of them in order to feed billions of people. And you need, today, a third of the world’s land to plant soy and corn to feed them.
GRABER: We talk about this all the time on the show, industrial livestock farming is a huge problem. We cut down the rainforest to grow feed for cows, there’s massive pollution from feedlots, there’s a big water use and climate change impact. Basically, eating a lot of industrial meat is not good for the environment.
TWILLEY: And that’s before you get to the ethics in terms of the inhumane conditions that most livestock is raised in, and the horrific conditions for people who work in slaughterhouses. Long story short, and I hate to be a downer, but the majority of meat eaten in the industrialized world is completely unsustainable and deeply cruel.
GRABER: You all have heard about substitutes like Impossible burgers, and you might have heard that more people are going vegetarian these days. But these trends haven’t actually put much of a dent in meat consumption in the US, and around the world, meat consumption is on the rise.
TWILLEY: Josh actually started out by making plant-based substitutes for meat. His company still makes those products. But he didn’t think those were ever going to fully replace animal meat.
TETRICK: And we decided to make real meat instead of plant-based meat, simply because we think it’s more likely people will eat it. We would be selling beans if we thought that was the most effective way to alleviate all the pain in our food system, but we think people are just more likely to eat meat than have, than have beans.
TWILLEY: PSA, you definitely should eat beans.
GRABER: We absolutely love beans here at Gastropod. But as for Good Meat, they started working on both chicken and beef, and as it turns out, chicken cells were easier to grow at first than beef cells.
TWILLEY: So chicken is what they brought to market.
TETRICK: And we first started selling in Singapore in late 2020, and we’re the only company in the world that’s ever sold cultivated meat.
TWILLEY: This is kind of amazing. Ten years ago, a burger was a miracle—it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and took huge amounts of effort to produce. And only a couple people in the world got to try it. Today, any old person can walk into a shop in Singapore and sit down to a lab-grown chicken dinner.
GRABER: Well, any old person if you’re one of the couple dozen or so that gets there in time each week and only once a week for a taste.
TETRICK: We started selling in late 2020. We’ve sold less than 5,000 pounds in total since we started. Historic in that we’re the first and only that’s ever sold, but very small volumes. I mean these are—like, we serve 20 or so people once a week at one butcher shop in a small country called Singapore.
TWILLEY: Even at Good Meat, which is one of the biggest companies in this new industry—even there, they’re not growing chicken at the factory scale yet. It’s still being cultivated in a pilot plant and honestly, they’re still working on getting the process down.
GRABER: Sophia Bou-Ghannam is one of the scientists at Good Meat who is trying to do just that. She comes from the world of tissue engineering for use in humans, and working in meat is a little different.
SOPHIA BOU-GHANNAM: For instance, if you were trying to treat cardiovascular disease with a tissue engineered product, it has to conduct some kind of electrical signal. It has to have contractiIe ability. It’s really complicated as a function.
GRABER: Function, meaning for medical purposes, this cardiac tissue engineered product would have to literally function as a working muscle, it would contract and move and attach in a human body. That’s not the case for cultivated meat.
BOU-GHANNAM: Here, it doesn’t necessarily have to have a function in a physiological sense. It has to taste really good, and it has to be completely identical in, in final form to meat, to what people are expecting. So there’s challenges there and there’s also some benefits. It’s, it’s… I hesitate to say easier, but it’s definitely a more direct route to not have to replicate a physiological function, but we’re held to a really high standard. There’s no room for changing what people think of when they eat meat. This has to completely replicate that experience for them.
TWILLEY: When it comes to how that challenge gets tackled, there’s some differences in approach too. When tissue is growing inside animal bodies and when it’s growing outside of them for regenerative medicine purposes, it’s always grown on something that scientists call a scaffold. In your body, that’s like an invisible web of support that cells attach to, it’s called an extra-cellular matrix. In regenerative medicine, they have to use engineered structures to replace that.
BOU-GHANNAM: For cultivated meat, it’s at a scale that it doesn’t work well for attachment. It just doesn’t.
GRABER: In theory to make it work for cultivated meat, you’d have to have, like, a vat of this scaffolding and then as the cells grow you need more and more scaffold. And the cells are stuck in place on the scaffold and so you have to get the right nutrients and oxygen to them in those places. It would be extremely difficult to make it work at a manufacturing scale.
TWILLEY: So instead Sophia and Good Meat threw out the whole scaffold idea.
BOU-GHANNAM: What we’ve done is adapt ourselves to completely carrier-free culture. So they’re just floating and proliferating as single cells, effectively.
TWILLEY: This is very different from what it’s like to be a cell that grows in an animal. Sophia and other scientists in this new field have had to breed their cells to be happy in this new kind of environment, without a structure to stick to. And they say it’s worked, which is very good news for cultivated meat companies.
GRABER: And these happy free-floating cells are why what you get out of the vat at the end when you harvest the cells, it’s not muscle. It’s mush. I have to admit that when we started reporting this episode, I kind of wondered how scientists could make a muscle grow, because to turn into a real muscle, cells need mechanical pressure, like moving around and making that muscle cell push and pull.
TWILLEY: And the answer to your question Cynthia is they don’t grow real muscle. Some of the scientists we spoke to think that maybe, one day, they’ll be able to do that. But for now, these cultivated cells being grown at SciFi and Good Meat are like proto-muscles—they haven’t grown into their full Arnold Schwarzenegger potential and they never will.
GRABER: But they have some special properties of their own.
BOU-GHANNAM: They have their own intrinsic stickiness, I would say, that’s just from the cell surface. Once you accumulate them in that final harvest, it’s definitely a very viscous material.
It feels like a—at that point, it feels like a chicken mince, I would say.
GRABER: Mushy, sticky chicken cells don’t necessary sound so tasty, but Sophia said they kind of are.
BOU-GHANNAM: Those carry a lot of flavor. I mean, we can taste our chicken and beef side by side, and they’re completely distinct. They’re, they still maintain their own flavor, which is kind of interesting because we’re putting them through the same conditions. You would just think that maybe they would end up tasting the same, if they don’t have a blood system that they’re connected to, or if they haven’t been exposed to whatever a cow grazing in the field would be exposed to, maybe they would finally taste the same. But they don’t, they really hold on to [LAUGHS] to their, their own individual characteristics.
TWILLEY: So These cultivated cells taste like chicken, or beef, and to Sophia they are chicken or beef. Just not the full range of different kinds of cells you’d find in, say, a chicken thigh or wing.
BOU-GHANNAM: It’s an accumulation of cells. It’s just, it doesn’t necessarily have the diversity of what we get in ch- in chicken meat. Even though there’s not always too much diversity with the cuts of meat that we’re consuming anyway, right? A chicken, you’re—in, in most of people’s way of consuming it. There’s no more skin. There’s no more bone. There’s no more blood, those kind of things.
GRABER: That’s generally true for a skinless chicken breast and it’s definitely true for what you get at Good Meat. And so once they have all those accumulated cells, you have to turn them into something that’s a little more like what would be part of an animal.
TETRICK: So then we remove that raw chicken from the vessel and we put it through what’s called an extrusion process. An extrusion process is just a way of applying heat and pressure to create texture. Snack food companies use it. Plant-based meat companies use it. Lots of different food companies use it. So we put this raw chicken through an extrusion process. It creates, the, the texture, the, the whole cut look that we want.
TWILLEY: Yum. All this talk of sticky mush and extrusion processes had made us hungry, so we went down to the test kitchen, where Good Meat’s senior product developer Zach Tyndall had whipped up some cultivated chicken small plates for us. The moment of truth, coming up after the break.
TYNDALL: Yeah, so, smoked chicken salad in the small bowl. Just like a little one-biter. You can eat it any way you’d like. And then the hot presentation, it’s a pomme puree, beet ring with the grilled glazed chicken on top with a little bit of cauliflower. So, yeah, dig in.
GRABER: Zach and one of his colleagues plated the dishes in front of us at the exact same time, I felt like I was in an expensive white tablecloth restaurant. And we took a taste.
TWILLEY: What I love about this is how much it looks like chicken. Like there’s grain.
GRABER: I was a little dubious about the texture part of it, but, like the… the feel of the muscle, you know, the, the texture of the grain and all that, you really do get that. It has that whole meat sensation. And it’s very tasty.
TWILLEY: It’s very tasty. It is.
TWILLEY: We had started with this very pretty dish of chicken slices, with lovely grill marks on them and a brownish glaze, served over top the veggies.
TWILLEY: It just is slightly different still. And I—a little bit texture, a little bit like mouth feel. Like that, I think, what you were saying about the kind of juiciness …. Yeah.
GRABER: And the richness. I mean, I also like dark meat, you know, too, and like kind of that richness of flavor is, is – it’s a little more muted. But if I weren’t thinking and I was having a piece of chicken in a dish, like with other things going on, like I would definitely think I was having chicken.
TWILLEY: It’s also delicious on its own terms. I feel like I’m comparing it in my head but I’m enjoying it as what it is.
GRABER: The smoked chicken salad also looked amazing, they’d smoked the meat in house, it was on a small bite of toast and was topped with chives.
TWILLEY: Here we go with chicken salad, which is very beautiful.
GRABER: Oh, it smells really good. It smells like a smoked meat salad. It smells great.
GRABER: I would eat this again and again.
TWILLEY: Yeah, that’s delish.
TWILLEY: This is the kind of cultivated meat that you will be able to order in a restaurant or two in the United States, very soon. And like Josh said, in Singapore, it’s already on the menu!
TETRICK: We actually sell it by the, the chicken plate. So it’s about 18 Singaporean dollars, more or less the same in US, $18 for a plate of chicken. And that’s line price with how chicken plates are sold in that, in that butcher shop. So we lose money on every sale.
GRABER: Josh wouldn’t tell us just how much our tastes of chicken cost, or how much money he was losing on those chicken plates in Singapore, but you can be sure that this meat is many many times more expensive than meat you’d buy at the store today, even if you got it from a small farm that takes animal welfare seriously and that’s already quite a bit more expensive than industrial meat. But the only way this cultivated meat will win at the grocery store is if the costs come down a lot.
TETRICK: Longer term, the ways to really bring down costs are making it in much larger vessels, lowering the cost of the feed, and then increasing something called cell density. So those are really the three big things that we need to do.
TWILLEY: Those things might sound straightforward, but they’re each pretty substantial scientific challenges, and there’s no real guarantee companies can solve them.
GRABER: But there might be another way to bring down the costs and maybe make this whole new technology work.
TWILLEY: The chicken we ate at Good Meat was not only not from a dead bird, it was also not 100 percent chicken cells.
TETRICK: About 63% or so of that is actual meat and the rest are binders, things to make sure that it doesn’t fall apart and those are made of plants.
GRABER: This was another surprise. I’ve been following the process of trying to make human organs for years and I know how hard it is, so I was happy to see that Good Meat was just growing mushy free-floating cells, that seemed more doable to me. But then to find out that what we ate wasn’t even 100 percent chicken cells and that nearly 40 percent was plant-based material? That might sound like a negative, like it’s not entirely real chicken, but to us that made it much more realistic!
TWILLEY: At SCiFi Foods, that’s been the concept from the very beginning. Kasia told us that her cofounder looked at the field, and this issue of needing to bring down the cost, and he saw this kind of blend of plant parts and cultivated cells as a way to do it.
GORA: From day one we’ve been talking about blended products and I think more people are talking about that now. But this idea of using cultivated cells as a flavor ingredient, so you don’t have to rely on those cells as the majority of the product. And by using cells as a flavor ingredient we’re just cutting, by 90%, the amount of tank volume required so that we can make more amazing burgers with less capex.
GRABER: Capex isn’t a word I use in my life regularly, it’s investor-talk for capital expenditure, that is, what the equipment costs to build and maintain.
TWILLEY: Basically, equipment like bioreactors is expensive, and if you can make more burgers with fewer cells, you don’t need to build as many bioreactor tanks, and so your burgers will be a lot cheaper.
GRABER: Josh thinks the majority of his cultivated chicken should be chicken cells. Kasia and her partner have tried to scale that down.
GORA: We’ve definitely tried different amounts of cells relative to plant protein. And what we find is more is better. The thing that we’re balancing against is the cost.
GRABER: Like many things we wanted to know, Kasia wouldn’t tell us an exact answer. But she says they’ve landed at around 10 percent cultivated beef cells in their hamburgers.
GORA: And for us, using those cells as an ingredient brings that flavor. And so our cells contain protein. They contain fat. And they’re able to bring sort of the full complement of beefy flavors to the burger product.
TWILLEY: For a lot less money. In a way, Kasia says, even though their meat is futuristic, the idea of using just a little bit of meat mixed with a bunch of plants is super old school.
GORA: Well, I think humans have been using meat as a flavor ingredient for a long time. Before steak became the center of the plate. I think if you look back a hundred years, folks were using small amounts of meat to flavor and add nutrition to all sorts of plant-based stuff.
GRABER: Of course, the proof is as they say in the pudding. Or the hamburger. We wanted to taste this 10 percent hamburger ourselves, but since it hasn’t been officially approved by the US government, we had to sign some things, saying that we knew it was an experimental food that hadn’t yet been subject to a thorough safety assessment.
TWILLEY: Kasia told us that we were among the first few dozen people in the world to try this burger.
GRABER: We’re in the first hundred?
TWILLEY: Wait, say that again?
GORA: Taste, taste test 97.
TWILLEY: Yep, this was really only the 97th SciFi hamburger taste test. Which was kind of amazing, but to be fair SciFi is a small company still, smaller than Good Meat. They’re set up to make maybe a few dozen burgers not tons of the stuff. So the burgers that we were about to taste, even though they were futuristic, they were also kind of artisanal and handmade.
GRABER: Tastes like a really great burger.
TWILLEY: I mean, it’s great. It’s a burger.
GRABER: Unlike most people in the US, I’m not really into hamburgers, so I haven’t eaten a lot of them as an adult. What I can say is that it tasted a little generic to me, not like some of the fancy hamburgers that have a lot of other fun stuff in them kind of pumping them up, but the folks at SciFi Food said that’s what they were going for, that kind of nostalgia burger.
TWILLEY: It’s got a nice crisp on the exterior, which I really like. It’s like a smash burger style kind of.
GRABER: Mm-hmm. I like the crispness too.
TWILLEY: And it’s not—no weird aftertaste like you can get with some plant burgers.
GRABER: It was kind of surprising—it did taste like a beef hamburger, but it only had 10 percent beef cells. Those cells are really bringing something flavor-wise to the burger.
TWILLEY: But if we’re talking about using these cells to create flavor, one of the things we know about meat from a food science perspective is that a lot of the flavor actually comes from the fat. At SCiFi, those beef muscle cells do also contain some beef fat. But if you’re really trying to get the maximum flavor bang for the minimum technology buck, why not focus just on growing fat cells?
BIANCA LÊ: Yeah, that’s something that’s definitely unique here at Mission Barns. We are openly focusing on fat for flavor.
GRABER: Bianca Lê is a lead scientist at Mission Barns.
LÊ: Fat is delicious and carries the flavor and mouth feel. But also scalability. That’s a really big thing here at Mission Barns. We know that it’s really easy to grow fat. In your bodies. It’s very easy to grow fat, much harder to grow muscle. We know that fat is mainly in our bodies to store energy and so fat is really good at accumulating nutrients and lipids from the environment. And we can use that to our advantage to grow more product and make it more delicious.
TWILLEY: Mission Barns was founded by the scientist who originally started the cultivated meat research at GOOD Meat—he left GOOD Meat a few years ago to focus on fat. And the team at Mission Barns picked pork fat, lard, as the first product. Laura introduced us to their lard donor.
BURCH: So here you see a picture of Dawn, our pig. And actually Dawn is real. She lives at a climate sanctuary in upstate New York called Sweet Farm. She’s our donor pig, from which we took a small harmless sample about the size of a grain of rice.
GRABER: Then they went through the same science we’ve talked about already, they had to isolate the fat cells, they had to figure out how to grow them in suspension and feed them and get them to multiple happily and quickly. They’ve done all that, and now they’ve combined that fat with plant-based ingredients. And they fry that all up in a pan.
TWILLEY: The folks at Mission Barns had cooked some meatballs, some chorizo sausage, and a BLT for us, all using this cultivated pork fat.
[SIZZLING, CUTLERY CLINKING]
TWILLEY: The sausage just looks like sausage. I mean, it really does. The bacon is sort of adorable because it’s like like a, a very… the, the little strips of meat and fat are very…
GRABER: They’re very regular. Very kind of perfect looking.
TWILLEY: Could you hear me struggling not to call the bacon weird-looking in front of the people who made it? It was just in these freakily regular long parallel stripes of fat and meat, like a flag.
GRABER: But what really matters is the taste. First the meatballs, I really liked them. They were juicy and nicely browned and really tasty.
TWILLEY: I thought they tasted OK, but the texture was not my cup of tea.
GRABER: I actually enjoyed that kind of bouncy texture. The chorizo was a huge hit with both of us, it was smokey and fatty and really tasty, especially with the vegan aioli.
TWILLEY: I preferred Mission Barns cultivated chorizo to real chorizo, to be honest. And then it was time for a BLT, which in general is one of my favorite applications for pig fat.
GRABER: I’m going to take a bite of bacon first.
TWILLEY: Yeah, I want just the bacon first. Which is crispy. It’s got the nice, crisp feel.
GRABER: It’s really crispy.
GRABER: It tastes really good and it’s crunchy in a good way.
TWILLEY: Yeah, it’s delish actually. Like, yeah, I’m into this.
GRABER: Okay. Whole thing.
GRABER: Oh my God, it’s really good.
TWILLEY: BLTs are so good in general, and this is a great BLT.
GRABER: I actually liked this Mission Barns cultivated-fat-mostly-plant-based bacon, this BLT, better than any real one I’ve had before. I’m going to be honest, I’m not a big bacon person. But I loved this.
GRABER: I would eat this.
TWILLEY: I am actually impressed.
TWILLEY: Mission Barns and SCiFi are not able to sell their burgers and bacon yet, they’re still working with the government on their approval process and building out their capacity. And again, their product isn’t cheap yet—Kasia told us that burger we ate cost about a hundred bucks. But that’s still much, much less than it would cost if they were using more meat cells. Deliberately using a smaller percentage of cultivated cells and blending that with mostly plant ingredients seems like a really smart strategy to bring down costs while still making delicious burgers and sausages.
GRABER: But it’s not the only strategy. Ben Friedman is part of the senior leadership team at another company called Wildtype, and he told us about a different approach to try to figure out the economics and gain a foothold in the market.
BEN FRIEDMAN: I think it’s really important to recognize the economic challenges in cultured meat are pretty crazy. It’s going to be really hard to build this type of technology to scale.
TWILLEY: And so Ben and Wildtype’s plan to get around the high cost of production is to charge a lot for the finished meat. Or, in their case, fish.
FRIEDMAN: I think that, what’s compelling about seafood is that you can go into like the sushi space, like we are, where we routinely see really premium products that sell for 50 plus dollars a pound, like, you know, Hokkaido uni, you know, sea urchin at like a fancy omakase restaurant is like coming into the restaurant, like probably north of a hundred dollars a pound for the most part. And so that’s a really different go-to-market strategy than a chicken breast, fried or grilled or whatever. It’s just a way harder business. Even at these high prices per pound, this is a tough business.
GRABER: So Wildtype is making cultivated salmon, but not the kind you might find in a can, not even the kind of salmon you might serve over rice with a nice maple and soy glaze. As Ben says, they’re basically growing expensive sushi.
FRIEDMAN: I think it’s really important for us to find those products that we can like, use as a beachhead to build a technology or, you know, not to use an overused analogy, but like, like a Tesla Roadster versus a Model Three. Like you start high because that’s how you can get to a mass market product. And I think that we look at seafood as like, the best way to do that.
TWILLEY: And they’re not alone. Over the bridge, in the East Bay, Finless Foods is growing bluefin tuna, also for sushi. Shannon Cosentino-Roush is chief strategy officer at Finless, and she explained the logic behind their strategy.
SHANNON COSENTINO-ROUSH: In a lot of ways, animal proteins are commodity markets. And so you’re trying to meet commodity prices with new technol—like new, novel and exciting technology. Bluefin is a much higher price point than chicken, for example. And so it’s an easier journey for us to get to a place where we could actually bring products to market at price parity.
GRABER: That’s one reason that sushi is an interesting approach for selling a new expensive technology. The other reason Wildtype and Finless have picked fish is not just the economics—it’s that people eat a lot of fish, they’re eating more and more every year, and it’s actually a huge problem from a lot of different perspectives.
FRIEDMAN: I think that so much of the focus in alternative protein and so much of the conversation about the link between food and climate is centered on cows and animal agriculture on land. We’ve really forgotten how important the ocean is
TWILLEY: The oceans and the things that live in them are frankly as screwed, if not more screwed, than the rest of the planet, and there aren’t a lot of good plant-based alternatives for seafood. Ben says that’s because making a plant-based substitute for fish is really hard.
FRIEDMAN: Like, seafood is a really challenging product from a technical standpoint. Fish is really delicate. The performance of raw to cooked is challenging. The flavors are subtle. So, seafood’s just like a hard nut to crack.
GRABER: Aquaculture is one option, but there are a lot of problems with salmon farms, and tuna, well, it’s a species that migrates globally and it’s been nearly impossible to farm them successfully.
TWILLEY: So, great, let’s cultivate some fish.
GRABER: Or not. It’s easy to say, but it has been really hard to do.
FRIEDMAN: We were catching fish and like just throwing everything at the wall that we could in a world where we really knew nothing. Like we did not know how to do it.
GRABER: Because while there’s been lots and lots of science about chickens and cows, they’ve been domesticated and farmed and studied. There’s been much much less science on the fish we eat in comparison.
TWILLEY: Brian Wyrwas is chief innovation officer at Finless. He told us everything was a challenge—even getting the original tuna cell sample from way out at sea back to the lab was a nightmare, let alone figuring out how to grow it. But they’ve done it. And like a proud dad, Brian took us to see some of his little tuna cell babies.
BRIAN WYRWAS: These are the tissue culture vessels. And you can see that there’s a little film of this liquid on top. And essentially what you see is there’s cells basically on the bottom of that plastic, growing and dividing.
GRABER: And of course they also have bioreactors at Finless, too, silvery vats where those cells are growing into pieces of tuna. It was one of the smallest scale outfits that we saw on our visit to the Bay Area, but they’ve been working hard to figure out the science to make those cells happy and tasty.
TWILLEY: Like everywhere else, once they harvest the mushy cells, they have to do a bunch of magic in the food science lab to turn it into something resembling bluefin tuna. At Finless, their final product is 50-50, about half bluefin cells, about half plant-based stuff.
EMILY BENES: On your left, on the plate, you’ll have a sample of wild caught bluefin tuna, and then on your right you’re going to see our cell cultured bluefin product. So they’ve both been prepared the same way. We prepare them kind of omakase style. So like you would get in a sushi restaurant.
GRABER: Emily Benes is the food scientist responsible for that magic, and this visit was the only time we got to taste the cultivated version and the real thing side by side.
TWILLEY: You can see the difference visually. Not that it’s not very beautiful in its own… different way. But there’s like a structural element going on in that. And more of, it’s more matte, weirdly.
GRABER: Yeah. I was going to say the, the bluefin is a little bit, there’s like a little translucence to it.
TWILLEY: But, again, taste is king. So we popped both bits of bluefin sashimi down the hatch.
GRABER: The texture is kind of weirdly similar.
WYRWAS: That’s a good kind of weird. [LAUGHS]
GRABER: Yeah. There are some flavor notes that are… that are different to me.
TWILLEY: Different but not bad—to me it was an upgrade on any grocery store sushi, for sure.
GRABER: We also tasted the sashimi at Wildtype. It looked even closer to the real thing than the tuna did, and it tasted good, but it was a little bit kind of bouncy.
FRIEDMAN: Yeah. And what’s going on there is that it’s the early days of cellular agriculture, and you’re trying our very first product, which is imperfect in so many ways. You know, there’s that old like, tech axiom. I think it was like Reid Hoffman who said, you should be like embarrassed of your first product. And like, we are. [LAUGHS]
GRABER: Ben was exaggerating a bit, they’re really proud of what they’ve accomplished so far, and they should be. But they have grand ambitions to keep improving it to make their cultivated salmon sushi closer to the real thing.
TWILLEY: OK, so at this point in our cultivated meat adventures, I was feeling pretty confident that cultivated meat and fish can taste good. Which, going in, I was definitely worried about. I was also impressed that the scientists have figured out how to grow cells in this free-floating suspension, rather than having to grow entire chunks of tissue on scaffolding—that makes this all much more realistic to me.
GRABER: It was also good to see companies experimenting with ways to get the cost down. Frankly, while we enjoyed Good Meat’s chicken, and if you can taste it at one of the restaurants the two companies will be partnering with then you should, we really thought this idea of using just a small amount of cultivated cells for taste has a lot of potential
TWILLEY: As for sushi, there’s no doubt the fish companies are doing amazing science and the results are tasty. What I’m less convinced about is that the people who pay big bucks for high-end sushi really want to pay equally big bucks for something that for sure tastes better than grocery store sushi but is not yet in the same league as the most beautiful wild seafood.
GRABER: But maybe there is a market, and maybe they’ll get there, we’d be happy to be proven wrong!
TWILLEY: But market strategies aside: there’s a big question mark remaining. Can cultivated meat and fish actually ever get big enough to make a real difference—a real dent in the amount of industrial protein we consume? That’s coming up after the break.
DAVID HUMBIRD: When I began the analysis, I then had to say, okay, well this is a—there’s, there’s no doubt in my mind that you can culture your cells. You can put ’em in your mouth and they have calories in some kind of flavor. But, in the end, are you really making enough to measurably displace conventional meat?
GRABER: David Humbird is a chemical engineering consultant, and he was hired by a foundation that was considering making a grant in the cultivated meat space. They hired him in particular to do a deep analysis of this field.
TWILLEY: To start with, Dave had to set a target—it’s kind of arbitrary, but where he ended up was that for these companies to be successful, they would have to be selling their meat to 10 million people a year. That would be about 100,000 tons worth of meat, which is a lot more than they make right now. And to make commercial sense at that scale, Dave estimated that the meat would have to cost about $11 a pound to produce, which again is a lot less than it costs right now. So then the question was, can they get there?
GRABER: The first challenge Dave sees is that cells produce waste like carbon dioxide as they grow and you have to get that waste out of the mixture or the cells will die. On a small scale it’s pretty easy to get rid of cell waste, Dave says it’s a lot harder in a much larger bioreactor.
HUMBIRD: But there was a second layer of constraints that are more specific to what animal cells need. Which is, well, they need amino acids.
TWILLEY: And right now, the specific ingredients that meat cells need to grow, they’re expensive. They’re not made at industrial scales and they cost a fortune.
GRABER: Another thing that’s expensive and difficult is keeping everything sterile enough. If the temperature in the facility is set at a lovely animal-body warmth and the vats have a lot of sugars for animal cells to eat, then it’s also a great environment for bad microbes that can kill the animal cells and poison the whole lot. So these are super super clean and sterile facilities, you have to gown up when you go in, and that adds costs to maintain.
TWILLEY: And then remember Kasia at SCiFi food’s point about the cost of tanks? Those big stainless steel bioreactors are also not exactly cheap, and the industry is going to have to buy a lot of them.
HUMBIRD: Whatever we have today in bioreactor volume for the pharmaceutical industry, we’re going to need several times that volume again to even make modest inroads into people eating cells.
GRABER: What Dave’s saying is that amount of bioreactor infrastructure doesn’t even exist today.
TWILLEY: In short, unless the industry figures out how to remove cell waste, make those ingredients cheaper, and deal with the sterility and bioreactor problems, Dave says they’re screwed
HUMBIRD: My, my analysis, even as grim as it is, doesn’t preclude the eventuality of one company getting FDA approval or USDA approval or selling or making a profit. All that could be possible. I just have said that, look, if we don’t do all of these things, and more, your scale-up will stall out before you get to that measurable displacement future you’re after.
TWILLEY: Of course, the companies know this themselves. Josh already listed these things as the big issues the industry needs to figure out to bring down costs.
GRABER: The companies we spoke with, they also told us they’ve addressed some of these concerns. Of course Dave can’t know exactly what any company is doing, and neither could we, because all of the specifics are company secrets.
LÊ: I can’t say too much about that. I’m sorry. [LAUGHS] It’s a proprietary system that we’ve developed, which is Yeah, really cool actually.
TWILLEY: We heard a version of this about 500 times during our reporting.
FRIEDMAN: I’m going to speak around the edges of this so that I don’t, you know, disclose any trade secrets.
BENES: I don’t want to get into the specifics of it, but yeah.
TWILLEY: We should say that this level of secrecy—while understandable—it means that we can’t be sure that these companies can do what they say they can do. We, you, and pretty much everyone else who isn’t an investor or a government regulator—we just have to believe them for now.
GRABER: But the people we met did give us some clues about what they think is working. For instance, we visited the bioreactors at Good Meat, and we talked to the folks who have experience with bioreactors. Sophia says they’ve been scaling up so far, and they’re optimistic that things will continue to work as they grow to even larger scale vats.
BOU-GHANNAM: So, there’s a certain limit to scale available currently, for pharma. And it’s just never been tried on a larger scale. So we do think it can be achieved. There’s just been no need to innovate in this space. I mean, you’ve never needed a hundred thousand liter bioreactor before.
TWILLEY: When it comes to the cost of amino acids, Bianca at Mission Barns told us they’re working with their suppliers to bring that down. Right now, those amino acids are produced by bacteria in yet another bioreactor, and those bacteria are fed sugars. There is research out there showing amino acids can be made directly by breaking down plant sugars, no need for bacteria, and that would in theory be cheaper, but it seems that no one’s doing that commercially yet.
GRABER: But we do want to point out that Dave’s analysis was built on the assumption that the finished product is 100 percent cultivated meat. And as we saw, even the ones that are celebrating their product as, like, basically all cultivated meat, like the chicken from Good Meat, it’s not all meat. Which again, we think is a great idea. This will definitely help make it cheaper, which should help it replace industrial meat faster.
TWILLEY: Getting the cost down is essential for commercial success, but it’s not the only criteria that matters here. Cultivated meat has an Achilles heel, which is how much it costs, but Josh told us it has some real aces in its hand, too. To mix my metaphors.
TETRICK: So from a food safety perspective, the risks around salmonella, fecal contamination, E. coli, avian flu. Little to no risk when you’re cultivating as opposed to conventional. You don’t need to slaughter an animal. And we slaughter tens of billions of animals today, every day, often in ways that if we saw it, we would not feel very comfortable with.
GRABER: And on top of all that, cultivated fish, unlike farmed salmon or wild tuna, it doesn’t have PCBs or mercury or other contaminants in its flesh.
TWILLEY: Ethics, health, they’re big ones. But one of the industry’s own biggest goals is to help prevent our planet from going up in smoke.
TETRICK: Now on the environmental side of it. There have been some studies that have been done that have indicated at scale this is a lot more efficient, 70, 80% from a carbon emission perspective relative to conventional.
GRABER: And there have been some studies that say that it isn’t a benefit from a climate perspective.
TETRICK: Truthfully though, until we’re scaled up, until we actually see not on a spreadsheet, you know what the assumptions are, but actually what is happening at real scale, we’re not going to be able to say it is X percent more efficient. We think it is today based on this initial analysis. We think it is based upon, sort of, some of these general principles, but a lot to be determined about exactly how much more efficient it’ll be.
TWILLEY: The biggest challenge, though, is: capitalism. And by that I mean, cultivated meat companies need a lot of investment to build this technology and this entire sector from the ground up. On the other hand, investors expect a return on their investment, and they often expect it pretty quickly.
GRABER: But if they expect that return TOO quickly, well, Ben says that maybe the companies won’t have enough time to make the science and the tech work and scale before the money runs out.
WURGAFT: I do not know how many of them will be standing a year from now. I don’t know how many will be standing two or three years from now. My big anxiety is that if companies fail and they fail because they run through their venture capital and can’t get more—because they’re not working on the timeline that the venture capitalists need—that people will declare the technology to be a failure. And the technology won’t be a failure. The science of lab grown meat won’t be a failure, necessarily. The economics will have been.
TWILLEY: This is a tricky problem to solve if you are just relying on venture capital. In some places, like Singapore and like China, the government is also investing in cultivated meat because they see it as important to food security in the future.
GRABER: And frankly, maybe it makes sense for governments to invest in this. After all, government money is a large part of why industrial meat is so cheap in the first place. It’s heavily subsidized.
TETRICK: Yeah. I mean, if you look at the feed as a percentage of the overall cost of chicken, beef, pork, it’s roughly 40, 50% of the cost. And the primary feed for most of the meat that we consume is soy and corn. And those two crops are heavily subsidized within the United States and in places like Europe and China, and other countries around the world. And it allows conventional meat to be much cheaper than it really is.
TWILLEY: Which also has the downside of making it harder for cultivated meat to compete. And *that* brings us to a bigger picture question about this whole idea. Because fundamentally, the problem is industrial meat: how we raise it and how much of it we eat. So does the solution have to be this high tech cultivated meat? That seems like a super Silicon Valley approach. Like, oh, let’s find a technological solution to a social and political problem.
GRABER: Let’s talk politics first. Politics and policies are part of why meat is so cheap. Feed is subsidized, workers aren’t paid enough, the harms to the rainforests and biodiversity and waterways and the climate and the soil—none of that is part of what we pay for when we buy a hamburger.
TETRICK: So yeah, thinking about—thinking about ways to incorporate that real cost into the price of conventional meat is something that we want to happen. It’s hard politically to do, but I hope it happens.
TWILLEY: Amen. But, like Josh, we are not holding our breath. Because these kind of political solutions seem beyond us right now.
GRABER: Policies could make meat production less damaging, but those policies would also make it more expensive. Which brings us to the social solution: we should all eat a lot less meat. That would solve this problem.
TETRICK: What is ironic about the work that we do, it’s…so much of it is unnecessary. Because we could stop all this cell line development, design and engineer these bioreactors and all these regulatory submissions and the tens of millions of dollars we spend on this. If people would only eat healthy, sustainable food, like beans, that can be easily grown and are enormously beneficial for their bodies and the planet. But we live in a very imperfect world. And we’ve got to live and deal with that world that we live in instead of thinking it’s something else.
FRIEDMAN: We’re in this like all hands on deck moment with climate change and with biodiversity crisis, sixth extinction, whatever you want to call it. We need to pull every lever we can as fast as we can, as hard as we can wherever we can.
TWILLEY: Basically, our feeling is, and Josh and Ben and all the folks making cultivated meat feel this way too—we’re not going to stop banging the drum for beans and begging our politicians not to subsidize industrial meat, and as much as I find this science totally fascinating, I really wish we could make these political and social changes as our main response to the problem of industrialized meat.
GRABER: I do, too, it seems kind of ridiculous to build an entire new shiny technology sector that costs a crap ton of time and money because we can’t make these changes. But, at the end of the day, we both wound up thinking that these companies are probably right—we really do need all the solutions we can get.
GRABER: Thanks to Ben Wurgaft, Dave Humbird, and everyone we spoke to at Good Meat, SciFi Foods, Mission Barns, Wildtype, and Finless Foods. We weren’t able to include everyone’s voice, but we so appreciate all of them taking the time to answer all our questions—and we had a lot! You can find out more about the experts and companies we spoke with on our website, gastropod.com.
TWILLEY: We’ve got lots more, as always, in our special newsletter for listener supporters—you make the show possible and we reward you with lots of cool extra stuff, including more on the different meat and fish dishes we tried, and the big debate on what this kind of meat should even be called. You can get on that mailing list and help us keep making the show by going to gastropod.com/support.
GRABER: Finally, thanks as always to our superstar producer, Claudia Geib. And to Nicky’s friend Sarah Sclarsic for the introduction to one of the companies.
TWILLEY: We’ll be back soon with some brand new episodes and a couple of favorites from the archive sprinkled in. ‘Til then!