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Ready For Meat Grown From Animal Cells? A Startup Plans A Pilot Facility

Memphis Meats, a Berkeley, Calif.-based startup, says it’s one step closer to bringing cell-based meat to consumers’ mouths.

The company plans to build a pilot production facility with funds raised from high-profile investors including Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Kimbal Musk, as well as two giant players in the animal protein and feed space, Cargill and Tyson Foods. The company says its latest funding round has brought in $161 million in new investment.

“People thought this was all science fiction” when the company was founded back in 2015 the co-founder and CEO of Memphis Meats, Uma Valeti, told NPR in an interview at the company’s headquarters. “Everything that we’ve done at Memphis Meats [has] started to show that this can be done,” Valeti says. “This is real.”

Interest in cell-based meat production and other meat alternatives has increased amid growing awareness of the environmental impact of traditional livestock agriculture.

Valeti and his team walked us through the process of producing cell-based meat. It starts with the selection of specific types of animal cells that can grow to become meat. Next, the cells are fed and put in a “cultivator” — similar to a fermenting tank — where they can grow and form muscle and connective tissue. The process is analogous to the way breweries grow yeast cells to produce beer. Only here, they’re growing animal cells.

I got the chance to sample Memphis Meats’ chicken, which was pan sauteed with some oil and served with greens. It tasted pretty close to chicken breast produced in the traditional way — but without as much textural variation between bits of muscle, fat and connective tissue. The new plant, which is expected to be built in the next 18-24 months, will allow the company to scale up and experiment with their meat products, which also include duck and beef.

But Memphis Meats and its competitors face quite a few hurdles in bringing cell-based meats to market. For starters, the cost of production needs to come down. Back in 2018, Wired reported that a pound of Memphis Meats takes $2,400 to produce, in part, due to the expensive growth mediums — or feed — needed to culture cells.

“Our costs have continued to come down significantly over the last three years,” Valeti told us in an email Wednesday. “We have a clear path to bringing a cost competitive product to market as we scale our production and that’s part of what our latest funding round will help us to unlock,” Valeti says. He says the company will continue to work on developing low-cost feed for the cells, which is one significant piece of the puzzle.

Decisions over how best to label, regulate and inspect cell-based meats are another challenge. In late 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that the two agencies would share regulatory oversight, but there are still many issues to resolve.

“The agencies have outlined a path to market, Valeti says, “and we will continue providing them with the information they need to fill in the details.”

Memphis Meats has plenty of competitors in the space, and some of them are are seeking regulatory approval outside the U.S. As of last year, there were 27 cell-based meat and seafood companies around the world, according to the Good Food Institute. These include Just Foods, which is developing Wagyu beef using cells from prized cows. In addition, there are several companies that aim to produce cell-based fish products.

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