Entrepreneurs are brewing up fish, meat, and fowl in spite of skeptics who say that lab-grown meat will never be feasible at an industrial scale.
At a test kitchen for a startup called Wildtype in the trendy San Francisco neighborhood known as Dogpatch, the saku, or “block” of salmon is visually a stunner. The most striking feature is the white striations between layers of orange flesh that serve as connective tissue. I say “serve as” because these white cells never helped muscles adhere to one another, spent any time in the vicinity of seawater, or even existed at any point anywhere near an actual fish. The salmon was grown purely from cells, or “cultured” in a lab. And yet the meat has the same slightly spongy mouthfeel as the real thing.
Dating back to the first $330,000 lab grown burger in 2013, demos for cultured meat typically take the form of burger patties or preformed nuggets, since it’s easier to turn cultured cells into “minced” products rather than fully structured filets or steaks. But Wildtype uses a more advanced technique. After nurturing the growth of cells in a large steel tank called a “bioreactor,” the team concentrates the freshly cultured cells on a plant-based scaffold. The cells then grow into the complex texture of orange muscle cells and white connective tissue.
“The longer the cells grow on a scaffold, the more they’ll break it down and create their own structures,” says Aryé Elfenbein, a Wildtype co-founder with an MD-PhD, who began his career working on regenerating (human) hearts after heart attacks.
The longer you keep the cells alive, the more complex the texture, but the more it costs to keep them growing by providing the nutrients, energy, and overhead.
The actual taste is not quite as richly flavorful as sashimi from real fish. Jun Sog, the Wildtype sushi chef who prepared the food today, describes the taste as “a lot cleaner” than market-grade salmon he might buy, and is more like a freshwater fish. But the “recipe” for culturing the salmon may be further tweaked, depending on how tasters respond. The basic variable is how long you keep the cells growing in culture before you harvest them. But Justin Kolbeck, a former U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan who serves as Wildtype’s CEO, describes a trade-off: The longer you keep the cells alive, the more complex the texture, but the more it costs to keep them growing by providing the nutrients, energy, and overhead. The process is more like making wine or beer than anything that resembles fishing.
“That’s what a lot of our product development looked like,” says Elfenbein. “We would have different cells within a scaffold for a day, and like five days and twenty days and five months. It was kind of like going to a wine cave and trying these different examples.”
Wildtype still lacks the regulatory approval to sell its product in the United States. Even so, the company has secured over $140 million in funding from investors including L Catterton, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cargill, and Bezos Expeditions. They say their facility down the street from their San Francisco office could in theory could produce 200,000 pounds a year of synthetic salmon that would look like the real thing. (Their current production is a fraction of that, just a few thousand pounds per year, because they don’t have regulatory approval to sell it and they give their entire production run away during tastings.) This huge bet comes in the face of intense skepticism from some experts who say that cultured meat will never be anything more than an impressive science experiment, because of the more than trillion-dollar projected costs for achieving industrial scale in a global market that consists of hundreds of millions of tons of meat per year.
Patricia Bubner, a PhD in biotechnology who is the CEO of Orbillion Bio, a cultured meat startup with facilities based in Berkeley, California, is also bullish. After experimenting with elk and bison cells, she and her team have devised a method for wagyu beef cells to grow suspended in a nutrient broth known as “media.” Having cells growing in the brew, rather than adhering to a surface, will help bump up yields. That’s because you can fit more cells in a bioreactor, and thus reach higher cell densities, than if cells had to grow on a scaffold that would take up more space.
Orbillion and Wildtype are among the more than 100 companies around the world trying to get in on the ground floor of the cultured meat boomlet. This past November, Upside Foods of Berkeley became the first company to ever receive approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that its cultured meat is safe to consume, though the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) must also grant permission before any sales begin. In 2020, a company called Eat Just was the first to gain regulatory approval to sell their lab-grown chicken products in Singapore.
Even though no American company has regulatory approval to sell cultured meat, Orbillion just announced a partnership for a facility that will allow them to produce 4 million pounds per year of premium ground beef. And since they’ll be competing with ground chuck, CEO Bubner says that the type of nifty scaffolding techniques Wildtype uses to create saku are unnecessary for their debut product.
“I’m not sure that steak is [the] most pressing thing to build,” she says. “Sixty percent of all beef that’s being sold in food services is ground beef. We know we can get the cost down and get to price parity fast.”
The “Wall of No”
The cultured meat doubters are not defending the factory farm system, whether for salmon, cattle, or other animals. The animal cruelty pervasive in livestock production and the fact that it’s responsible for 14 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions is well documented. Salmon farmers have improved their production practices in some places in the world. But they still struggle with sea lice infestations and the problem of farmed fish escape and cross-breeding with wild salmon. These escapes lead to ill-adapted hybrid spawn that can cause wild populations to decline.
The skeptics say it’s not that we don’t want the cultured meat market to mature. It’s a question of price parity. They say cultured meat can’t be done at a price even affluent Americans will pay. Even in the best-case scenario, they claim, cultured meat might be a novelty that a small number of wealthy people might eat. But in the grim realist calculus needed to fill 10 billion stomachs by 2050, cultured meat is at best a flashy sideshow. It’s like the food equivalent of Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse.
David Humbird, a chemical engineer who spent two and half years crunching the numbers and creating a 100-page analysis, concludes that the prospects of affordable lab-grown meat amount to a “wall of no,” in which “every big no is made up of a hundred little no’s.” Though Humbird declined to comment for this article, his analysis, outlined ably by Joe Fassler for The Counter, makes his concerns crystal clear.
Even in the most optimistic scenario, Humbird projects that cultured meat will likely cost between $17 and $23 per pound to produce. Based on that, Fassler estimates a retail price of $40 per pound for shoppers at the grocery store, or a $100 dollar burger in a restaurant—rendering cultured meat an expensive curiosity that would do little to impact the roughly 225 pounds of meat each American eats annually.
He then points to an estimate in Food Navigator that to replace just 10 percent of the global meat market by 2030 would require 4,000 massive cultured meat factories, each consisting of roughly 130 bioreactors. With each factory costing roughly $450 million to construct, making 4,000 generates a price tag of $1.8 trillion. By his account, even if we undertook an effort with an investment on the scale of the Manhattan Project, cultured meat might—at best—amount to a weirder version of the pricey grass-fed beef, which despite strong growth over the last few years, the vast majority of Americans still never buy. It was “hard to find an angle that wasn’t a ludicrous dead end,” as Humbird said to Fassler of bringing cultured meat production to an industrial scale.
Quoted in the same Counter article in 2021, former Pfizer vaccine researcher Paul Wood says, “In this whole debate around the future of food, we’re ending up with solutions that fit wealthy, middle-class people who want more options. I’ve got nothing against it, but don’t pretend it’s going to solve world food. That’s the thing I find most offensive.”
Production facilities as “Potemkin villages”
In an editorial for Nature, Humbird and his co-authors liken pilot production facilities for cultured meat to Potemkin villages, the fake Dnipro River settlements that a 18th-century Russian official used to fool Empress Catherine II into thinking that all was well as she passed by. The implication is that these gleaming new plants from Wildtype or Orbillion make a competitive product seem imminent. In fact, the companies themselves don’t know for sure when or if anyone will be able to buy their product, or what the price will be. (Bubner claims that she will be able to produce premium wagyu ground beef at a price competitive with commodity beef by 2030.)
“I’m sure some companies are overpromising. But I also know some companies are trying to do it correctly. And I believe that some of these companies are going to succeed.”
But there’s reason to believe that the skeptics are too pessimistic. “I have seen data firsthand from multiple cultivated meat companies that disprove the cost and scale assumptions in [Joe Fassler’s] Counter article,” says David Welch, a former Good Food Institute food scientist who now works for Synthesis, a firm that invests in cultured meat and other alternative proteins. “The main flaw with the article and the report it draws from is the assumption that we cannot progress beyond the technology ceiling that exists today for producing products such as biofuels and pharmaceuticals.”
“I think David is great [referring to David Humbird], because he makes people stop and think,” says David Kaplan, who directs the Tufts University Center for Cellular Agriculture. “I’m sure some companies are overpromising. But I also know some companies are trying to do it correctly. And I believe that some of these companies are going to succeed.”
Kaplan notes that early-stage startups don’t have any incentive to release their data for third-party review, since that would be giving away valuable IP to competitors. “The data that Humbird uses in his paper, has a lot of extrapolation and suppositions that come from big pharma. What he puts in there is from pharma and less from food. Trying to apply paradigms, growth factors, and scaling from pharma, I would argue, is like apples and oranges.”
Based on research from his own lab at Tufts, and other academic labs, Kaplan is much more optimistic than Humbird that the engineering problems for cultured meat can be solved.
The high cost of culturing media
The most expensive aspect of cultured meat production is the so-called “media,” the term for the chemicals that scientists use to manipulate cell growth. Most companies are using fetal bovine serum and growth factors, which are expensive substances that in arriving at his $17–$23/pound estimate, Humbird estimates will come down in price somewhat due to economies of scale. But he also told Fassler the costs may not decline significantly at all, which would turn industrialized cultured meat into a “nonstarter.” (Wildtype’s Kolbeck notes that fetal bovine serum costs roughly $800–$900 per liter.)
Fetal bovine serum has problems in addition to its high costs. After all, obtaining it requires the slaughter of a pregnant cow, a major problem for salmon or beef marketed as “no-kill.” Also, its contents vary significantly batch-by-batch, making it ill-suited for industrial mass production.
So both Wildtype and Orbillion have devised ways to provide cells with nutrients without using animal serum. They have been able to identify the ingredients in the serum that make the cells thrive, providing the combination of amino acids, fats, minerals, and sugars in the right proportion. Instead of feeding livestock like normal farmers, they feed their cells.
When Wildtype’s Elfenbein first began growing salmon cells without serum, he found that growth rates were slower. “It’s really just in the last six months that we have been able to not only grow reliably without serum, but achieve yields that are higher.”
Tufts’s Kaplan says that he and other researchers have also figured out how to make serum-free formulations. And he’s confident that growth factors—the costly, specialized proteins that bind to cell receptors and tell the cells to grow or to differentiate—will also become less expensive. Existing economic models are based on pharmacological processes, in which scientists produce a relatively small amount of cells that then yield valuable products like vaccine-grade viruses. He thinks a business model of maximizing cell growth to produce meat creates the incentive to research efficiencies and alternatives for costly inputs. “Up until now with pharma, no one cared about the costs, because you just want your cells to crank your proteins. You’re going to see huge breakthroughs here, because no one had to worry about it before.”
Cell media is far from the only brick in the “wall of no.” There are also physical challenges to mass producing cells to yield tons of meat, rather than the small quantities of cellular products that the pharmaceutical industry typically creates. The waste products from cell growth, known as catabolites, may present physical limits to how many pounds of cells can be produced. And then there is the threat of contamination: A warm nutrient broth is Valhalla for bacteria, which Humbird theorizes would require expensive clean rooms in which to house giant farms of stainless steel tanks known as “stirred bioreactors” to protect and grow the batch, requiring massive capital expenditure.
Kolbeck recently estimated that to produce 1 percent of the world’s seafood, he would need all of the stainless steel bioreactors currently in existence.
But Kaplan says these concerns are overblown and underestimate the resourcefulness of the scientific community. The members of various labs are already studying low-cost methods for removing waste products, using selective membranes and other methods. And he notes that all food producers, whether making cultured meat or anything else, need to worry about the safety of their products. Farm animals already consume roughly 66 percent of the world’s antibiotics in order to prevent disease outbreaks. And numerous COVID-19 hotspots, including the now-notorious seafood market in Wuhan, were inadvertently created due to the ability of the virus to jump between animals and humans. Given that cultured meat producers will have control over all inputs and the growth process, they will be able to argue their process is actually much cleaner than the status quo. “In terms of proving food safety and food security, I think we have a winner,” Kaplan says.
Making bioreactors out of textiles or hollow fibers
One area where cultured meat optimists agree with Humbird and Fassler is that creating vast farms of stainless steel bioreactors is not feasible. Kolbeck recently estimated that to produce 1 percent of the world’s seafood, he would need all of the stainless steel bioreactors currently in existence. Kaplan says that his own lab is researching making the bioreactors out of textiles. Other teams are experimenting with hollow fiber bioreactors, in which cells grow amidst bundles of tubes.
Kaplan envisions cultured meat coming to market first as a “hybrid,” in which purveyors enrich a plant-based patty with 10 percent cultured meat. He thinks these types of products will help drive consumer acceptance, allowing the industry to grow.
“I’m optimistic based on the data and the [published] science we have done and others are doing,” Kaplan says. “Does that mean there’s not going to be hype? That David [Humbird] is not right, in some aspects? No, I think all that is reasonable. And that’s normal for a nascent industry that’s scrambling for market share, scrambling to succeed.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated on February 10, 2023 to clarify in the second paragraph that the salmon cells are “growing” into the complex texture and not “differentiating” into it.