But the talk wasn’t what you’d expect.
To most people, the term “Clean Meat” communicates that beef, pork, or chicken contains no antibiotics, chemicals, preservatives, hormones or drugs, or is grass fed, organic, non-GMO, free range, cruelty free, or ethically raised.*
But that’s not what the conference was about. Clean Meat is a placeholder term for animal meat that wasn’t raised at all. Rather: beef, pork, and chicken grown without raising a cow, pig, or chicken.
The Good Food Institute, whose mission is to accelerate the plant-based and clean meat industries, defines Clean Meat as, “identical at the cellular level to conventional meat. This is real meat grown directly from animal cells, produced in a clean facility, similar to a brewery. The process does not involve raising and slaughtering farm animals. The final product has an identical taste and texture to conventional meat.”
If this sounds like some future world, it should, since Clean Meat exists right now only as experimental, early prototypes produced at lab scale. As far as those of us at the conference know, there are no companies that have successfully scaled and launched Clean Meat into the market. Yet.
Panel after panel were asked when Clean Meat would be ready for consumers to see, smell, taste, chew, and swallow. The general consensus is at best a year to 18 months away, and probably more realistically, 3-5 years to scale to national volume levels. Though some of the companies who presented were touting their meat’s readiness, 18 months is a ridiculously ambitious hope, given the incredible challenges Clean Meat faces.
The first challenge is consumer communication. Getting consumers to accept genetically-modified foods was hard. It still is, and there’s a strong movement against it. Clean Meat will be even harder to explain. It’s not just jiggering with a gene inside an existing plant. It’s something more akin to alchemy: cow meat grown from biopsy. No hoof, no tail, no moo, no agriculture, just beef cells multiplying in a tank. Imagine a Walmart shopper trying to wrap her head around this concept.
But maybe she won’t have to, said many of the panelists, who represented organizations such as Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, JUST, Kellogg, KraftHeinz, ADM, and Johnsonville (Sausage). Also present was Ann Veneman, former US Secretary of Agriculture.
The issue is that we don’t know how Clean Meat will—or can—be marketed, because there’s still confusion around which governmental agency should regulate it. If you ask Memphis Meats, a Clean Meat startup, they said—in a letter to President Donald Trump— “both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have roles to play in regulating cell-based meat and poultry products.”
Until this huge issue is cleared up, nobody’s regulating Clean Meat, which is somewhat alarming, not because it’s scary new technology: biotech companies have been growing organs tissue and animal parts from cells for years. OK, maybe it is scary but we’ll get to that in a minute. It’s fear of the unknown. All it would take is a few regulatory decisions to impede this innovative solution from getting to market. Consumers won’t be able to enjoy the benefits of Clean Meat until they can buy it at a Safeway, Whole Foods, White Castle, or Panera. That’s where the concept is truly proven.
And what benefits are consumers are interested in? Mattson’s general population study shows that the #1 thing consumers appreciate from Clean Meat is that it could “help reduce the amount of hormones and antibiotics we consume.” #2 was to “reduce animal cruelty and increase animal welfare.”
Think growing beef, pork, chicken, fish, and dairy from cells sounds crazy? So far out there that it’ll never catch on? It IS out there, and some consumers do find it terrifying. But not as many as you’d think.
With only the most basic information (we used GFI’s definition of Clean Meat), 46% of consumers—almost half—said they would buy it, without any additional information. Another third are sitting on the fence, needing more facts before they commit. What’s more surprising is that only 20% of the population rejected the concept. And some of this 20% likely included the 4% in our study who were vegetarian or vegan.
These are very early times in Clean Meat’s journey to market, but the numbers bode well. There are also a few significant people who think Clean Meat has huge potential.
The chicken experts at Tyson have put their money where their mouth is, and invested in Memphis Meats, as has Bill Gates. Food and environment-focused venture capital and private equity is flowing into the space. And with the Good Food Institute as an advocacy group of its own, Clean Meat has a champion and the momentum that conferences like this one create.
The race is on to see which Clean Meat startup (MosaMeat, Memphis Meats, Clara Foods, Perfect Day, Finless Foods, JUST, or another younger sibling?) gets to scale first, and offers consumers a totally new alternative to eating factory- and farm-raised meats… without having to give up beef burgers, fried chicken sandwiches, or pork sausage.
* Data is from a survey on Clean Meat conducted by my company, Mattson, for the Good Food Clean Meat Conference.