Uma Valeti slices into a pan-fried chicken cutlet in the kitchen of his startup, Memphis Meats. He sniffs the tender morsel on his fork before taking a bite. He chews slowly, absorbing the taste.
“Our chicken is chicken. … you’ve got to taste it to believe it,” Valeti says.
This is no ordinary piece of poultry. No chicken was raised or slaughtered to harvest the meat. It was produced in a laboratory by extracting cells from a chicken and feeding them in a nutrient broth until the cell culture grew into raw meat.
Memphis Meats, based in Emeryville, California, is one of a growing number of startups worldwide that are making cell-based or cultured meat. They want to offer an alternative to traditional meat production that they say is damaging the environment and causing unnecessary harm to animals, but they are far from becoming mainstream and face pushback from livestock producers.
Valeti, a former cardiologist, co-founded Memphis Meats in 2015 after seeing the power of stem cells to treat disease.
The company, which also has produced cell-grown beef and duck, has attracted investments from food giants Cargill and Tyson Foods as well as billionaires Richard Branson and Bill Gates.
A report released in June by consulting firm A.T. Kearney predicts that by 2040, cultured meat will make up 35 percent of meat consumed worldwide, while plant-based alternatives will compose 25 percent.
“The large-scale livestock industry is viewed by many as an unnecessary evil,” the report says. “With the advantages of novel vegan meat replacements and cultured meat over conventionally produced meat, it is only a matter of time before meat replacements capture a substantial market share.”
But first cultured meat must overcome significant challenges, including bringing down the exorbitant cost of production, showing regulators it’s safe and enticing consumers to take a bite.
As global demand for meat grows, supporters say cell-based protein is more sustainable than traditional meat because it doesn’t require the land, water and crops needed to raise livestock — a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Many consumers would love to eat meat that doesn’t require killing animals, said Brian Spears, who founded a San Francisco startup called New Age Meats that served its cell-based pork sausages to curious foodies at a tasting last September.
“People want meat. They don’t want slaughter,” Spears said. “So we make slaughter-free meat, and we know there’s a massive market for people that want delicious meat that doesn’t require animal slaughter.”
Finless Foods, another startup in Emeryville, is making cultured fish and seafood. It’s produced cell-based versions of salmon, carp and sea bass, and it’s working on bluefin tuna, a popular species that is overfished and contains high levels of mercury. The company has invited guests to sample its cell-based fish cakes.
“The ocean is a very fragile ecosystem, and we are really driving it to the brink of collapse,” CEO Michael Selden said. “By moving human consumption of seafood out of the ocean and onto land and creating it in this cleaner way, we can basically do something that’s better for everybody.”
The emerging industry moved a step closer to market in March when the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration announced plans to jointly oversee the production and labeling of cell-based meat.
If cultured-meat companies use genetically modified cells, they would face even greater scrutiny from consumers and government regulators, Hanson said.
Memphis Meats is focused on reducing the cost of cultured meat and producing larger quantities. A plate of chicken that used to cost tens of thousands of dollars to produce can now be made for less than $100, Valeti said.
The company hopes to sell its cell-based meat within the next two years, starting with restaurants, then moving into grocery stores, assuming it passes USDA and FDA inspections.