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.

Awake in the canals

 Unable to sleep, a view from an Amsterdam houseboat in the quiet hours of the night.

Unable to sleep, a view from an Amsterdam houseboat in the quiet hours of the night.

 
 A spray of color along the Old World passages that circle Amsterdam's city center.

A spray of color along the Old World passages that circle Amsterdam's city center.

AMSTERDAM — For four days I got to live on a houseboat in a canal in the Netherlands. I was six hours removed from my native timezone, tucked away in one where I barely slept, opting instead to stare dreamily out my bedroom window by night as passing boats rippled the water in a vain attempt to lull me into another place.

There's a saying in that tiny country (though from whom it originated I don't know) that, "God created the earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands." It makes sense taking into consideration the human ingenuity it took to forge a country below sea level and behind seawalls. It also applies to the area of my research. What better place on earth to foster the idea of an environmentally-friendly meat, grown without animals, as a means of making a more efficient food system?

But I'm already familiar with the story of Willem van Eelen. It was the daughter of the late-van Eelen with whom I sought to meet on this trip, along with a handful of entrepreneurial spirits who are working hard to make cell-cultured meat a reality.

My journey took me deep into the city center, to its north, and also to the south of the country, where in a small town the treaty was signed that officially formed the European Union in 1992. 

The trip was invaluable, and I'm increasingly excited to share what I'm learning about this very particular corned of the food space, and the people who inhabit it.


UPDATE: In the previous post I'd mentioned the issue of so-called 'clean meat' being kosher. The conversation around that topic is evolving. My latest on the subject in Quartz.

 

 

The Mission.

 Working from the heart of San Francisco offers a welcome reprieve when New York is encased in the frigid grips of winter.

Working from the heart of San Francisco offers a welcome reprieve when New York is encased in the frigid grips of winter.

 
 A writing companion who doesn't complain when I use too many em dashes.

A writing companion who doesn't complain when I use too many em dashes.

SAN FRANCISCO — There are nooks and crannies where its old spirit can be found, but this is no longer the city you hear about in songs and recollections.

If the unavoidable protrusion of the new Salesforce tower on this city's skyline isn't enough of a sign, a ground-level stroll through the historic Mission District will clear any remaining confusion. San Francisco is a place that's gone through radical change.  That is, in fact, what brought me here. 

There are about eight companies in the world working to get cell cultured meats into the commercial market. Food re-envisioned in a re-envisioned city. Three of these companies call the Bay Area home: Hampton Creek, Memphis Meats, and Finless Foods. On more than one level it's appropriate these start-ups are based here, after all Silicon Valley is synonymous with cutting-edge.

Still also, though, are the parallel questions about identity. Founded (and largely funded) by vegans, these food technology companies are wrestling with exactly what kind of message they should communicate to the outside world. Should they market themselves as vegan? (The preeminent thinkers seem to think not.) And what should they even call the meat they're creating? 

The latter is a topic I'm especially interested to watch unfold. From a recent piece I wrote for Quartz:

The need to find a name indicates how close the technology is to jumping from lab to market. But translating terminology from scientific jargon to consumer-friendly lingo is nettlesome. Forces within the nascent cell-cultured meat industry are working to get everyone to coalesce around one name: clean meat.

Not everyone in this space is in agreement on that term, though, and the debate has led to some interesting conversations at the intersection of marketing, public policy, ego, and activism—the crucible in which these start-ups figure out more precisely how to carry out their missions.

These young companies are coming into their own during a ripe moment, buttressed by promises to deliver food that's better for people, the environment, and the future. The opportunity to document their first steps, and I'm eager to see where that takes me this year.