As sales of meat substitutes falter, another sustainable protein option is coming to the table. A lab-grown chicken product was recently approved for human consumption by the Food and Drug Administration, making the US the second country after Singapore where cultivated meat passed regulation – likely paving the way for similar products to get to market. It's a big step for the long-developing cultivated meat industry, which claims to be more ethical and better for the environment compared with the animal cruelty and high carbon emissions of industrial agriculture.
Now the question for cultivated meat companies – and suppliers and restaurateurs who are weighing whether this is the future of more sustainable meat consumption – is how to get people to eat it. Meatable, a Netherlands-based cultivated meat company, is deep in that process now, as the company recently announced it'll be releasing its first products – including pork dumplings and sausages – in Singapore in 2024. We sat down with co-founder and CTO Daan Luining to hear what lab-grown meat needs to do differently.
Are your products vegetarian?
‘I don't think so. Well, it's more [about] philosophy. Why don't you eat meat? Is it because of animal welfare? Is it because of the climate? Then this is definitely an option for you. Is it because you just don't like meat? Then don't [eat this] because it actually is meat. This really is the stuff that comes from the animal. So, is it vegan? Hell, no.’
So then, in terms of the audience you're going after, who's your target customer?
‘I'd prefer to go to hardcore, die-hard meat-eaters, because they're the ones that are contributing [so] much to the consumption of animals. Vegetarians should go about what they're doing right now – they're doing amazing; they're not eating meat anyway. That's why I prefer to go to the hardcore barbecue guys and convince them. It's the same as an electric car: you need to go from A to B [but] gasoline isn't good for you and isn't good for the environment. [So, get] a sexy electric car and at least you're [helping] a little bit.’
Give me the 30-second rundown of what this solution entails.
‘The fundamental building blocks of life are cells. You consist of cells, like 37 trillion of them working together. You take a small part of that, use the capacity for cells to multiply, multiply them a lot and turn them into muscle and fat.’
You partnered with an external company to ramp up your production. Is it going to look like factories where you've just got a bunch of little bits of meat growing?
‘Yes, because the amount of meat that people eat is enormous. In the Netherlands alone, it's two and a half million kilograms every day. That's just in the Netherlands – a little over 17 million people – [and] we're low on the spectrum when it comes to meat consumption in Europe. It'll take time to build. Factories don't just erect out of the ground. So it's not going to be one player takes all – we need all the help that we can get to make sure we're not eating ourselves to death.’
You're launching in Singapore in 2024 with the aim of also getting into European markets, regulation pending, by 2025. How will it be rolled out – will it be in every restaurant in Singapore?
‘No, it's going to be in a set number of restaurants. If you need to supply one restaurant, you're talking about hundreds of kilos per day. We need time to fill that need. It's really nice actually, because it's a new product. People need to get used to it. So, while we're scaling up in capacity, more people will get to know about us, so I think consumer acceptance will go linearly. At least we can create a trusted consumer base. I think it's a better organic growth model than just saying: well, we built 1,000 factories and people should just accept it.’
When it comes to environmental impact, what's the outcome of creating a kilo of cultivated meat?
‘That really depends on the methodologies used. But, from a life-cycle analysis we've performed, in terms of methane, land [and] water, it's in the 90th percentile less. For CO2, there's a debate there – it's about how you calculate it. We're in the 60th percentile reduction, so not as [much of] a massive home run as the other ones, as it depends on how you calculate the energy use and the source. But the good thing is you can use renewables. You can get [energy] from solar or wind. Methane, you can't [replace]. You can't innovate a cow. It's still the animal that eats grass and becomes steak. We have options and, with smart innovations and resource retention, there are more versatile methods.’
Can you talk a bit about the challenge of getting this out to market and turning it into a scalable consumer product?
‘It's very technical. It's pretty hardcore cell biology that you have to understand – like why certain things are the way that they are. Cells have rules. Cells don't like to be put in a situation you want to put them in. Understanding the constraints of cells and finding appropriate systems to accommodate for that is pretty new science, or at least for thinking about it for food.
‘There are proxy fields – say for tissue engineering, if you want to make muscle, fat, that's all medicine-based. Basically, we have to get those learnings and convert them to food, which is very interesting and also challenging. Adding to that is that regulators want to see a complete process before they agree to a file. If you change your process significantly in the meantime, you have to start over again.’
What are the other regulatory challenges?
‘There are some very obscure things. One thing I think is really interesting – and this is very nerdy – [is] called the Codex Alimentarius. The FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization] made a global document, like a guideline, [saying] this is how you produce food anywhere in the world for all the major agricultural crops and stuff like that. Like, this is wheat, this is corn.’
So you'll have to create a new category.
‘It'll be taken up.’
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.