Is meat the new meat? The rise of cultivated meat

Nutritional Outlook, Nutritional Outlook Vol. 24 No. 6, Volume 24, Issue 6

Plant-based meat is growing rapidly, but with cultivated meat on the horizon, the meat aisle will get even more competitive.

More consumers are embracing plant-based foods and the idea that consuming less animal-based products will improve their health and the health of the environment. U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods grew 27% to $7 billion in 2020, according to SPINS data commissioned by the Plant Based Foods Association and the Good Food Institute.

Plant-based meat is the second largest category of the plant-based food market, after plant-based dairy, increasing in sales by 45% to reach $1.4 billion in 2020. Plant-based meat sales grew twice as fast as conventional meat sales, accounting for 2.7% of retail packaged meat sales. More specifically, refrigerated plant-based meat sales grew 75% in 2020, and frozen plant-based meat sales grew 30% in 2020.

It’s clear that in the years to come, as ingredient suppliers and manufacturers continue to innovate, plant-based meats will take up more and more valuable retail space in the refrigerated and frozen foods section, developing greater parity with conventional meats. Food technology innovations and consumer curiosity are accelerating growth.

As more consumers search out meat alternatives that give them the experience of eating meat without the guilt, another player may complicate matters further: cultivated meat.

Cultivated meat is meat grown in a lab. Cells are isolated from animals, and these cells are grown to form tissues. While it sounds like science fiction, cultivated meat is a reality and may offer a humane and environmentally friendly way to consume actual meat. For example, Israel-based Aleph Farms has successfully grown thin-cut beef steak using non-GMO cells isolated from healthy cows. “Our products mirror the sensory quality, texture, flavor, and fatty marbling of a conventionally produced steak,” explains Didier Toubia, co-founder and CEO of Aleph Farms. “Compared to plant-based alternatives, Aleph Farms’ cultivated meat incorporates the same amino acids and volatile compounds, and the same enzymatic reactions occur during cooking.”

Aleph says it will be able to expand its portfolio to cultured meat products cultivated from the cells of various animal species. The company has even developed a platform that allows it to produce any meat cut of any size through an approach called 3D bioprinting. Although cells are taken from animals, there is no need for repeated cell collection from livestock. For example, Aleph has created frozen cell banks from a single cell isolation to serve as a source for thousands of tons of meat per year.

One of the biggest obstacles facing cultivated meat is accomplishing large-scale production for a cost that is in line with the meat industry. Building consumer trust is another, says Toubia. For its part, Aleph is scaling up, building a pilot plant it calls BioFarm, in Israel. The company plans on completing the pilot plant in 2022 and launching its first product, the thin-cut beef steak, that same year. It is also actively working on regulatory approvals and building up its supply chain.

So far, the only regulatory approval for cultivated meat has been in Singapore, but that was an important step in the category’s progress, says Toubia. “It isn’t a long-term vision anymore but rather a practical solution to some of our most urgent issues today associated with food production. This milestone represents the ongoing process of bringing cultivated meat products to global markets,” he says. “We value the regulator as a partner to build trust with the consumers. We’ve been interacting with the USDA and FDA for the past three years and believe that the U.S. will be one of the first countries to clear cultivated meat for marketing.”

When it comes to consumer trust, Aleph is optimistic. According to a survey commissioned by the company, there is a high level of openness toward cultivated meat, despite its novelty. The survey, which included 4025 respondents from the U.S. and UK, found that 40% of respondents from each country considered themselves to be at least somewhat likely to try cultivated meat or extremely likely to try cultivated meat. In addition, 44% of respondents from each country considered themselves somewhat likely to buy cultivated meat. Familiarity and support for the technology was higher among Gen Z and millennials, but genuine curiosity pervaded all generations.

Another important statistic to consider is that, according to a survey from the research firm Mattson in 2017, 29% of consumers identified as “flexitarian,” actively reducing the amount of meat in their diets but not cutting it out entirely. Will these consumers pick plant-based meat replicas once they have access to kill-free, lab-grown meat? Or, once the novelty wears off, will all these products just be another option? It’s too early to make predictions about the future of cultivated meat and the impact it may have on the market, but it’s a significant, if not controversial, innovation that will captivate some, repulse others, and all the while draw even more attention to meat alternatives.