Lab-grown meat: an appetizing alternative?

Overcoming the ‘ick factor’ of clean meat

Could clean meat revolutionize the food industry? Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Cargill have already invested. But challenges remain: perfecting the taste, scaling the process – and overcoming the ‘ick factor.’

A version of this article was previously posted on on February 6, 2018.

Ask people if they want to eat lab-grown meat and they’ll probably say no. Why? It’s called the ‘ick factor.’ “It’s how you frame the question,” says Nick Fereday, Senior Analyst Consumer Foods at Rabobank. “If I asked if you would eat meat that was sustainable and had no risk of fecal contamination, I’d be setting you up to say yes.”

“Just 5% of the US market could make it a viable product”

- Nick Fereday, Rabobank

Compared with conventional meat production, clean meat offers the prospect of drastically cutting land and water use and greenhouse gas emissions. Sustainability could convince some consumers, but others may be harder to persuade. “It depends on your target audience,” says Fereday.

“If you’re aiming for the natural and organic crowd, or vegans and vegetarians, you’ve probably got a lot of hard work to do. But if you’re aiming for the mass market, which may be more indifferent to where their food comes from as long as the price is right and it tastes good, you’re on to a better thing.”

Would you eat a burger if it started life like this?

Price and taste

Getting the taste and texture right is tricky. “Growing meat is more than just growing muscle,” says Fereday. “At the moment all they’re doing is growing lean muscle. They need to find a way to turn that into a meat product with the right fats and flavor and so on. Then they need to find a structure to grow it on that resembles other types of meat. All they can do now is ground beef-type stuff like hotdogs and meatballs.”

Then there’s price. Lab-grown ground meat is dropping in price, but it’s still more expensive than regular meat. The production process will need to be scaled to make clean meat economically viable and attractive to consumers. This means moving from the lab to mass production. “Companies have done it in other fields, so we know it can be done. It just hasn’t been done in this space,” says Fereday.

“This is the long game. We’re changing a lot of habits here”

- Nick Fereday, Rabobank

Realistic timeline

In January 2018, Fereday published the results of a survey of players in the consumer food industry. One of the questions he asked was, “What food innovation do you think presents the biggest commercial opportunity over the next five years?” Many respondents mentioned clean meat. They all agreed that it is an exciting development. Some believe clean-meat products will be on the shelves within five years. Others think it will be more like ten to twenty years.

Looking better already

Learning to accept substitutes

Fereday is cautious about the time it will take for clean meat to capture the market. As with any new product, it’s not going to happen overnight. “You have to look at other substitutes,” he says. “At its peak, margarine had about 74 percent of the spreads market, but that took decades. This is the long game. We’re changing a lot of cultural habits here. People who have an unrealistic timeline are going to be disappointed.”

”Cargill and Tyson recognize clean meat as an alternative”

- #Kickstartfood

Clean meat doesn’t have to win the whole market to be viable. Consumers spend billions on meat in the US. Just five percent of this market could make it a viable product, Fereday notes. Producers of conventional meat have recognized it as an alternative. Cargill and Tyson have invested in Memphis Meats, and German poultry company PHW Gruppe has partnered with Israeli company SuperMeat. “The fact that players like Cargill and PHW are involved legitimizes the sector,” says Fereday.

Rabobank clients can read the full report on the survey here.