The promise of lab-grown meat – made from pieces of lab-grown muscle tissue instead of living animals – has dangled in front of us for decades. Now it’s actually happening.
A Bay Area-based startup called Memphis Meats has figured out how to make a real meatball in the lab using beef cells, no livestock required. Take a look:
At a demo day for the IndieBio accelerator program in February, Memphis Meats cofounder and CEO Uma Valeti laid out the three main problems he sees with today’s meat industry: the demand for meat is growing faster than we can keep up with it, there are looming health risks like E.Coli and antibiotic resistance, and it takes takes 23 calories of grain to make one calorie of beef – an unsustainable amount.
The lab-grown meat process goes something like this, according to Valeti. Find ultra-high quality cows and pigs. Take meat cells from a pork shoulder or other cut of meat. Find the cells capable of self-renewal and cultivate them in a sterile environment. The cells are harvested early for tender cuts of meat, and harvested later for textured cuts.
Since lab-grown meat doesn't need to snack on grain to survive, the energy inputs can be significantly lower than with "real" meat. Memphis Meats claims it requires just three calories of energy input for one calorie of energy output.
There's also little risk of antibiotic contamination since the lab-grown meat is grown in a pathogen-free space. Take a look at the difference in antibiotic and bacteria contamination of Memphis Meats cuts of pork and beef compared to organic meat bought from the grocery store (Memphis Meats conducted the experiment, so take it with a grain of salt).
No one making lab-grown meat, including Memphis Meats, has gotten around the fact that they need to use fetal bovine serum, which comes from unborn calves, to start the cell culture process. That means lab-grown meat, as of now, still requires the use of real animals. But Valeti told the Wall Street Journal that he'll be able to replace the serum with something plant-based in the near future.
The cost to make lab-grown meat has dropped dramatically recent years. When Mark Post, a researcher at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, created a burger made from lab-grown meat in 2013, it cost $325,000. In 2015, Post said that he'd been able to bring the price down to just over $11 for a burger.
Still, scaling up will be the main hurdle for Memphis Meats. People aren't going to want to pay a premium for an unfamiliar product like lab-grown meat, so the company will have to get the cost down to the price of normal beef (if not lower). Post has said he thinks it will be up to 30 years before lab-grown meat is commercially viable, but Memphis Meats clearly doesn't plan to wait that long.
The meatball is just a proof of concept, but the startup hopes to have a product in stores within the next half decade or so.
Memphis Meats is now raising money on Indiegogo to develop its product and bring it to market. At the time of writing, the company has raised nearly $13,000 with a month left.
This is the path Memphis Meats sees to market:
As for that name - the family of Memphis Meats' third cofounder, Will Clem, owns a chain of 43 barbecue restaurants based in Memphis. He's using family recipes to make the meatballs.
Considering that Mark Post's burger didn't earn rave reviews in the flavor department, it will be a boon to Memphis Meats having a flavor expert on the team. We'll find out in a few years whether those family recipes have paid off.