A banner year for cell-cultured meat

 A view from home.

A view from home.

 
 Warhol dug cows.

Warhol dug cows.

NEW YORK — Smooth hummus. Cell-cultured duck chorizo. Sleeping in an Dutch canal. Iced coffee along the Mediterranean Sea.

It’s been a year.

Reporting out this book on the rise of cell-cultured meats has been been an exercise in keeping up with rapid-fire developments as a high-tech space quickly evolves, staying on top of the news, writing a mammoth amount of copy, and keeping my sanity in the process.

As I look back on the last eleven months, I can’t help but but think 2018 will go down as perhaps the most momentous year yet for the burgeoning cell-cultured meat industry—and there’s still a month for big news to break. While about nine companies are the closest to getting this new product to the market, a handful more have emerged from so-called stealth mode, further populating a field of food that's capturing the imaginations of tuned-in foodies. And there's good reason for excitement.

For starters, some of the world's largest meat companies are betting on cell-cultured meat. To date, Tyson Foods and Cargill have invested in Bay Area-based Memphis Meats. Maastricht-based Mosa Meats secured funding from Bell Food Group, Switzerland’s leading meat processor. And Germany's PHW Group has partnered with Tel Aviv-based SuperMeat.

It's a win-win for both sides. Instead of fighting the tide of food innovation, the conventional meat industry is taking its first furtive steps toward embracing the nascent industry. And that makes sense, as consumers have shown with their buying power that they're eager to learn about and try new sources of protein. Why not cash in on this interesting new proposition for meat eaters? And for the cell-cultured startups, being able to focus on developing the best products possible is an invaluable benefit to not having to rough it against an angry meat industry.

On the political front, 2018 was a roller coaster for cell-cultured meat companies. One major group of ranchers asked the US government to create an official definition for meat. An even bigger group of ranchers pushed against that move (and probably for good reason). The US Congress waded into the fight. Eventually the meat industry pulled US president Donald Trump into the mix.

Then the FDA said it would take on the responsibility of regulating cell-cultured meat. But the USDA hated that idea and we watched as two massive federal agencies duked it out for control. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, Memphis Meats and the conventional meat industry settled on a truce and appealed directly to the president to direct the FDA and USDA to work together. And he did. By mid-November the agencies issued a joint-statement detailing the beginning steps of how cell-cultured meat will be regulated to make way for its eventual entry into the US market. That has major implications for how these products will enter other markets around the globe, as many foreign governments have typically looked to US food regulatory standards as a benchmark for their own.

As that drama unfolded, I’ve found myself visiting different parts of the world to research the nuanced history of cell-cultured meat to better grasp what its future might look like for the book. That journey began in San Francisco, where four of the nine major companies are based. I traveled to the Netherlands and Israel. I went to Boston for the New Harvest conference and to Washington, DC to cover the unfolding policy fight (picking up support from New America along the way). I’ve now interviewed the leading scientists and entrepreneurs in this space, ranchers and farmers who’ve been producing meat for decades, politicians, lobbyists, think tanks, leaders of the vegan movement, and even the daughter of the godfather of cell-cultured meat. The topic has even taken the kosher and halal communities by storm, as religious leaders grapple with whether cell-cultured meat would be okay to eat. It’s been a thrilling experience so far, one that’s been humbling and eye-opening. I look forward to a bit more travel as I wrap up the reporting and writing of this extraordinary project, one that’s given me the privilege of speaking with so many interesting people do such incredible work.

Humbled by hummus

 

 Stopping for lunch in Tel Aviv.

Stopping for lunch in Tel Aviv.

TEL AVIV — Even the most intriguing food technology has a tough time outshining the hummus I ate in Jaffa, an Israeli town just to the south of lush Tel Aviv. Cozied up along the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, this hummus was served up at Abu Hassan; slightly cool, immediately addictive, and creamy, it was presented with a dusting of paprika and a dab of olive oil. I went back for seconds, blushing. Then thirds.

Even as I visited three promising food laboratories developing cell-cultured meats in Israel, the purveyors of these high-tech spaces paid significant homage to the naturally-grown food that already exist around them.

"These are the freshest dates you'll ever taste," says Ido Savir, sliding a small box of twelve across a table toward me. They were slightly frozen, gushing with juices, and overwhelmingly sweet.

I lean forward with a napkin to keep from dripping. This is the kind of food I gorged on during my two-week stay in the country, where it takes a careful eye to find menu items that aren't healthy options. Everything is loaded with tomato and onion and cucumber and carrots. 

In that same vein, the cell-cultured meat companies here are singular in their own right. For most of them, the approach is deeply academic. My travels took me from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Rehovot—proving in a very visceral way the power of a a national effort to push a science forward, and in a way that compliments an already-sustainable food system.

 

 

The policy fight over cell cultured meat has started

I recently spoke with Evan Kleiman on her wonderful KCRW show, Good Food, to chat about cell-cultured meat and the initial rumblings in Washington over how the product will be marketed. The conversation was particularly enjoyable for me, in part because her questions were so great. Check it out

You can also read the corresponding story, which was published on Quartz in February.

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