Lab-Meat Growers Wants Help From Industry They Seek to Disrupt

(Bloomberg) -- Lab-grown meat producers have already turned to big meat companies for funding. Now they could use the industry’s help in displacing regular meat on dinner plates.

According to Andrew Noyes, the head of communications for Just Inc., meat companies are discussing the possibility of helping cell-based meat producers with distribution and providing production facilities. Noyes’s San Francisco-based company already produces plant-based versions of foods such as mayonnaise, eggs and dressings, but is readying to sell its cultured meat -- an area that’s only now preparing to open up to commercial sales.

A partnership between traditional meat companies and their would-be cell-based competitors would make sense: Consumers are buying increasingly larger quantities of products that are seen as more humane and environmentally friendly. Traditional meat producers could use a foothold in this fast-growing niche, while cell-based meat startups could use some assistance in ramping up operations.

“No one knows more about how to mass produce meat than the meat-industry companies,” said Bruce Friedrich, executive director of the Good Food Institute, which lobbies for the industry that includes cultured-meat companies like Just Inc., Memphis Meats Inc. and Future Meat Technologies Ltd.

Rather than slaughtering animals, these companies are using in vitro cultivation of animal cells to make what they say is the same thing as traditional meat. While plant-based alternatives to meat are becoming more widely available, this is not yet the case for meat cultivated from extracted cells, partly because it’s still very expensive to produce.

The Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced that both agencies will regulate the new category of cell-based meat jointly. This may be a sign that the time is coming for these products to become commercially available to retailers and the food-service industry, though some food-safety advocates say more research is still needed.

Noyes said Just Inc. is well positioned for this moment. The company has raised more than $220 million in funding, including small amounts from meat producers. It has developed its own “plant-based cocktail” serum to grow cells, instead of using alternatives like fetal bovine serum, which is from calf fetuses. The exact composition is proprietary.

Partnerships

Just Inc. is not the only example of a potentially disruptive startup getting help from established players. Perfect Day Inc., which is developing an animal-free whey, recently said it is going to use Archer-Daniels-Midland Co.’s facilities to scale up production, co-founder Ryan Pandya said.

Just Inc. already has enough production to pursue commercial sales, most likely in small amounts to high-end restaurants, Noyes said. The first will probably be crispy chicken bites. The company is aiming to make its first sale by the end of this year, but because of regulatory hurdles in the U.S., it is more likely to happen abroad, he said.

That sale, when it happens, will be largely symbolic. Even after cultivated meat lands on a few select restaurant menus, it will be “limited availability for quite some time,” Noyes said.

For now, big meat producers are mostly keeping quiet about their plans. Both Cargill Inc. and Tyson Foods Inc. said they don’t comment on speculation, while a spokesman for JBS SA said the company isn’t investing in Just. Cargill and Tyson already invest in cell-based meat competitors.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.