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Would You Eat a Lab-Grown Duck Breast? Inside the Alternate Meat Industry

This excerpt from Amanda Little’s new book, ‘The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World,’ offers a peek into what it means to grow meat in a laboratory

memphis meats

The broader category of “alternative meat” products in the United States has been soaring in recent years.

Courtesy of Memphis Meats

This is an excerpt from the new book, The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World, published by Harmony. 

THE LABORATORIES OF Memphis Meats are located in Berkeley, California, next to a juice bar and a small-batch coffee roaster, and not far from Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse, the Shangri-la of farm-to-table restaurants. Here, in a newly renovated brick building on a quiet, tree-lined street, a group of scientists is rethinking meat production at the molecular level — which is to say, completely. Their novel approach both upholds and upends everything that the patron saints of Berkeley’s sustainable food movement hold dear.

Co-founded in 2015 by Uma Valeti, an Indian-born cardiologist, and Nicholas Genovese, a stem cell biologist, Memphis Meats is the world’s first start-up to grow meat in a laboratory using tiny samples of muscle, fat, and connective tissues taken from living animals. “We are a meat, poultry, and seafood company that makes end products no different than conventional meat, while eliminating the need for animal slaughter,” Valeti tells me in a phone call before my visit.

He adds that the cells that are grown, or “cultured,” in his laboratories are “alive,” even though they’re not attached to the animal. They’re so alive, in fact, that the mature muscle tissue he produces actually responds — as in flexes, or spasms — when stimulated. The notion that a serving of cultured meat had once been flexing in a petri dish would send me running to the tofu section, I tell Valeti. But he goes on to outline the many benefits that might coax me right back: “Cultured meats are identical on a cellular level to animal meats and can be as or more nutritious and delicious,” he says.

The processing and consumption of beef, pork, and chicken has nearly doubled worldwide in three decades, and it’s expected to double again by 2050. Beef is the real killer among these. Over years of research, I’ve come to understand that my red meat habit is draining America’s lakes and rivers, increasing my risk for heart disease, contributing to the destruction of virgin rain forest cleared for cattle grazing, and driving global warming. Livestock production accounts for about 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions globally, more than all forms of transportation combined. It also gnaws at my conscience that most animals raised for slaughter aren’t given decent living conditions.

Valeti holds that the production process for cell-based meats could reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from meat production by more than three quarters, while also cutting associated water use by up to 90 percent. Cultured meats could also eliminate the risk of bacterial contamination (gone would be the threat of E. coli and the helping of feces) and reduce the risk of heart disease and obesity (fats and cholesterol levels in these meats can be controlled). “We’re talking about changing the lives of billions of humans and trillions of animals,” Valeti tells me.

I first heard about Memphis Meats in early 2018 when Tyson Foods announced plans to invest in Valeti’s start-up. The investment sounded preposterous to me, coming as it was from a company that produces one of every five pounds of meat consumed in the United States.

Annually, Tyson sells $15 billion worth of beef, $11 billion of chicken, $5 billion of pork, and $8 billion in prepared foods under a brand roster that includes Hillshire Farm, Jimmy Dean and Ball Park Franks.

Tyson was investing not just in lab meats but also in start-ups making plant-based proteins — most notably, Beyond Meat, which produces burgers, sausages, and nuggets made from soy and pea proteins, and recently made headlines for its massive IPO.

The broader category of “alternative meat” products in the United States has been soaring in recent years. The Silicon Valley start-up Impossible Foods has raised more than $350 million to push its product — plant-based hamburger meat flavored with synthetic animal blood — into the mainstream. Recent Nielsen data shows that in a one-year period, retail sales of meat alternatives jumped 30 percent — many times the growth of meat sales and of retail food sales generally. Another study found that 70 percent of meat eaters are substituting nonanimal proteins at least once a week.

Tyson Foods isn’t the only player in the conventional meat industry making unconventional investments. Cargill Meats, another one of the world’s biggest producers of beef and poultry, had invested in Memphis a few months before Tyson jumped in. Valeti’s company has also drawn tens of millions of dollars of investment from more predictable players: Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and the venture firms Atomico and DFJ, which focus on disruptive technologies. Cargill’s Sonya Roberts described Memphis Meats as developing simply “another way to harvest meat. For people who want a product from an animal welfare perspective, we want this to be there for them.”

Backers of lab meats are betting that plant-based products will never achieve the depth of flavor or the full “mouthfeel satisfaction,” as Valeti calls it — the bounce, chew, and density — of meat. “Faux hamburger patties and nuggets are an important application, but a narrow one,” he says. “Humans have evolved over millennia eating animal meat. More than 90 percent of the global population eats it today. What they want is a product that tastes, handles, and cooks exactly like traditional meat.” What Valeti’s trying to produce, in other words, is not an alternative to meat, but a whole-hog (or whole-cow) replacement — without the bones, organs, hide, “oink,” or “moo.” It’s a wildly ambitious goal, however strange and unsettling. Which is why, when Valeti invites me to visit his laboratory and taste a sample of his product, I accept.

“KEEP IN MIND that what you’re about to eat came from a cell, not a slaughterhouse,” Valeti intones. “I just want to be sure you’re looking at this as a very big, historic thing.” So begins the dramatic preamble to what is certainly the most expensive and possibly the most precedent-setting meal I’ll ever eat — a 2-ounce, several-hundred-dollar portion of duck breast grown from a cluster of cells that were taken from a live duck presumably still waddling around a farm in Petaluma, California. I hesitate only a little before I sign a legal waiver acknowledging that cultured meats “are experimental, their properties are not completely known,” and agreeing to “voluntarily accept all risk of loss, damages, injury or death that may occur to me as a result of my participation in this tasting.”

Uma, who has glossy black hair, high cheekbones, and a hundred-watt smile, leads me and half a dozen members of his team into the gleaming white-and-stainless-steel test kitchen adjacent to the laboratories in Memphis Meats’ headquarters, which have been newly built to accommodate the quadrupling of its staff in the past year, from nine employees to thirty-six. Together we watch a small, pale lump of duck-less duck meat sizzle in a shallow frying pan. Valeti explains that he’s working on duck, in addition to the more common American meats, because it’s highly popular in China, where meat demand is surging.

“Notice the way the meat smells as it sears—you can’t get that rich aroma from plant-based products,” observes Valeti. He has instructed the in-house chef to use a neutral oil and season the duck breast with nothing but salt and pepper so that I can experience the meat’s unalloyed flavor.

The chef places the golden-browned specimen next to a colorful bed of radicchio, cabbage, orange slices and fresh figs dressed in a citrus vinaigrette and invites me to sit at a table set for one. Uma and his cadre remain standing and watch me expectantly. “Should I say grace or . . . give thanks for the cell donor?” I joke, feeling antsy under the pressure and picking up my fork.

“Try picking it up in your hands and playing with it first,” Valeti says. “Pull it apart, feel the crispiness and density, see how it falls apart.” I oblige, prying at the knob of meat. It’s taut and springy and feels a bit like trying to split a bouncy ball. But as the meat comes apart I see what Valeti’s talking about—the long, stringy muscle fibers bind and hold together, stretching and then separating as I pull. “A far cry from a garden burger,” I say. Valeti nods enthusiastically. I pop a piece in my mouth and the duck tastes as advertised—meaty.

I’ve eaten duck only a few times in my life, but I know it can be chewier and fattier than chicken. This duck strikes me as a bit too chewy (I have to put my jaw into it) and overly stringy, with a vaguely metallic aftertaste, but it’s certainly familiar-tasting, and I have no problem eating every bite. It’s clear to me that if I ate the stuff gussied up with sauce and trimmings, as Peking duck or duck à l’orange, I would be hard-pressed to distinguish the meat from conventional duck. And it’s ultimately this — the familiarity, the passability, the very ordinariness of the product — that’s so remarkable, given its extraordinary provenance.

MEMPHIS MEATS’ BERKELEY headquarters are bright and elegant, with dove-gray carpets, huge windows, and open-plan seating. Hanging in the lounge area above the vegan-leather poufs is a mosaic of album covers that includes employees’ favorite food-themed bands: Meat Loaf, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Salt-N-Pepa, Counting “Cows.”

There are four Memphis Meats laboratories, and while all look like typical biology labs with their microscopes, centrifuges, eyewash fountains, and racks of beakers, Valeti insists on calling them “farms.” “Growing cells is somewhat analogous to growing animals,” he ex- plains, “so our process flows in much the same way as a farm’s does.”

The first lab is dedicated to what Valeti calls the “cell line development team.” These folks select the best breeds of cells from which the meat is grown. Genovese has developed partnerships with farmers in California and beyond who grow various types of livestock, from heritage animals to breeds that have been selected to yield a higher quality of muscle or certain flavor profiles in their meat. The partners send Genovese small amounts of tissue from the part of the animal he wants to replicate — no more than is collected in a typical biopsy.

In theory, any part of an animal can be grown, including bones and organ tissue, but for now Valeti’s team is growing only what we directly eat — muscles, connective tissues, and fats. The cells are stored in liquid nitrogen and then “reanimated” from the deep-freeze state. From these samples, Genovese and his team can identify and select the healthiest cells that are most capable of renewing themselves, and therefore easiest to grow.

Memphis Meats CEO, Uma Valeti (center) and Chief Science Officer, Nicholas Genovese (right) oversee a chef cooking with Memphis Meats duck breasts. Photograph courtesy of Memphis Meats

During our tour, Valeti pulls a petri dish from an incubator, places it under a microscope, illuminates the base, and invites me to look in. “See the tiny wormlike things that look like elongated triangles? Those are muscle-forming cells — or ‘starter cells,’ ” he says. I adjust the scope, focusing in on what looks to me like a scattering of pale, glinting stars at twilight. The two cells are round, rather than oblong, and nestled next to each other in a couplet. “A cell dividing!” cries Uma. It’s the first time I’ve witnessed this essential miracle of life — that living cells renew themselves. They can, in theory, replicate themselves indefinitely, but they need the right conditions and fuel to do so. Which leads us to the next laboratory, occupied by the “feed development team” — the scientists who formulate the special brew of nutrients in which the cells are grown.

K. C. Carswell, a Memphis Meats scientist, explains the complexities of feeding cells: “A cell can’t eat a whole blade of grass — it eats the subcomponents of that grass, which in the body of a cow are broken down in the stomach.” Carswell describes her work as a form of “biomimicry” — an effort to simulate processes that exist in nature. “We’re trying to give cells access to the same nutrients and growth factors that they would get within the cow.” Carswell’s team tests dozens of configurations of feed daily, each a different mixture of proteins, fats, hormones, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals suspended in water. This broth serves as a substitute for blood, which delivers the nutrients consumed by an animal into its cells. Historically, scientists growing cultured tissues have used fetal bovine serum, a substance extremely rich in the nutrients that cells need to grow, but there’s a serious hitch — it’s extracted from cow fetuses, which makes it financially, environmentally, and ethically costly.

Carswell and her team have been working feverishly to produce a version of the growth serum that contains no animal-derived ingredients. They’ve succeeded, but still need to figure out how to produce it affordably and at a high volume. Once the cells are selected, they’re placed inside bioreactors, which are essentially ultra sophisticated Crock-Pots, where they’re fed the special brew. A pump continuously circulates the feed and oxygen throughout the morass of cells (there are billions within a single cubic centimeter). As the cells mature, the feed is changed according to their different stages of growth. Young cells need special nutrients as they replicate. Hour after hour, the cells elongate while growing closer together. The mature muscle cells form long chains, linking end to end while also rubbing shoulders and binding together, building layer upon layer. The chains and layers begin to look like the roiling ocean in a Japanese woodblock print, or, as Valeti describes it, “the whorls in a Van Gogh painting.”

Once the cells are mature, they simply need to bulk up, so the feed shifts to a simpler formula of proteins and fats. The process is similar to that of a cattle feedlot system: calves need special nutritive feed to grow and mature, but eventually they end up in a fattening lot where they eat a calorie-rich diet to put on weight. When it’s time for harvest, the solution used to feed the cells is drained from the bioreactor and the cultured cells are removed in the form of what Valeti describes as “an integrated piece of meat.” The end result is not, in other words, a mushy mash of cells, but rather a solid structure with layers of fused tissues, similar to what you’d harvest from a slaughtered animal. The lab meat is technically still “alive” when harvested, even if it lacks sentience, but it’s immediately stored in a freezer and “dies” in the process. “The point when the tissues are no longer considered living is the point of asphyxiation, when the cells no longer receive oxygen,” says Valeti.

He knows that I’m eager to see the signs of life exhibited by the disembodied animal cells before harvest. He opens up his laptop and runs a video of lab-grown beef tissue in a petri dish that Genovese captured via a camera mounted on a microscope. “The contractions can occur spontaneously or in response to stimuli — like an electrical pulse,” Valeti tells me, adding that the petri dish can also be spiked with caffeine “to get the cells fired up.” The black-and-white video rolls. I see what looks like a smear of beef carpaccio on the bottom of a petri dish. It’s perfectly still — and then it spasms. The strands of muscle look like tiny rubber bands getting pulled and released. I’d been expecting it, but I gasp. The experience doesn’t repulse or scare me, though. I feel less like Victor Frankenstein witnessing the monster’s first twitch than like Alice passing through the looking glass. I’ve entered a realm of possibility that I didn’t know existed.

SINCE THE FOUNDING of Memphis Meats in 2015, a dozen or more start-ups have begun to develop lab-grown beef, pork, poultry, and seafood. Among them, Mosa Meat, Just, New Age Meats, and the Israeli company Future Meat Technologies have announced plans to release cultured meat products — from chicken cutlets to breakfast sausage — in the near future, some by 2020. Another Silicon Valley start-up, Finless Foods, has been developing cultured bluefin tuna. The founders, a pair of twenty-something biochemists, say they’re on track to debut their first product, a cell-based fish paste, by late 2019. SuperMeat is formulating a special animal-free brew to replace fetal bovine serum, which it hopes will fuel the rise of this young industry.

Valeti won’t disclose a release date for his products, nor will he specify which products he plans to release first, but says he isn’t concerned that others may beat him to the punch because he’s going for quality rather than speed. “It’s fantastic — nothing proves the viability of an idea and shows the promise of a market better than competition,” he says.

Meantime, CRISPR-ed meats are a fast-emerging trend in the beef industry. Cows genetically engineered without horns to eliminate painful aspects of slaughter. So even if lab meats sound weird now, they probably won’t by the time these products start hitting store shelves. The recent success of plant-based meat products is also helping to pave the way for mainstream acceptance.

Ask almost any animal-rights activist (and, for that matter, a large portion of Millennial and Gen-Z consumers) and they’ll tell you that animal-free meats are the future, no matter what. Matthew Prescott, food policy director for the Humane Society, calls plant-based meats “gateway products” for the broader industry of meat alternatives. “This shift away from animal meats as we know them is already happening,” says Prescott, “whether you’re aware of it or not.”

From the book THE FATE OF FOOD by Amanda Little. Copyright © 2019 by Amanda Little. Published by Harmony Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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