Josh Sosland
Amid the venture capital incubators and start-up initiatives spreading throughout the processed food industry, a look at a major area of investment in the meat industry offers an important glimpse into the extraordinary changes under pursuit with time horizons far shorter than perhaps thought. For grain-based foods executives, the effort to commercialize so-called “clean meat” suggests the seriousness with which futuristic advances in traditional food products, including wheat-based foods, ought to be explored.

Clean meat is the name an emerging sector has chosen to describe meat produced using cell cultures from live or freshly slaughtered animals. The cells proliferate in industrial vats, fed by a nutritional brew and are then injected with materials that signal the cells to transform into the components of meat — muscle, fat and connective tissue. These cells populate edible or biodegradable scaffolding that allows the finished product to take form. The resultant meat requires no animal agriculture, animal rearing, raising or slaughtering. Scientists believe the brew may be adjusted to enhance the nutritional content and overall healthfulness of meat. The technology has been imagined for decades, and the practical possibility of clean meat has been catapulted forward over the past 15 years with help from scientific areas like regenerative medicine.

These advances have attracted considerable entrepreneurial interest. More than a dozen clean meat business start-ups currently are operating globally, with companies established in the United States, The Netherlands, Israel and Japan. At IFT17, Eric Schulze a senior scientist at one of the start-ups, Memphis Meats, said his company already has successfully produced beef meatballs, chicken and duck using the technology. The company is targeting 2021 for widespread commercialization.

Concerns about sustainability and resource use, health and animal welfare are powerful drivers of clean meat. Animal agriculture is the leading source of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere, and global meat demand is expected to double by the year 2050, Mr. Schulze said.

The scientific community has recognized the possibilities of clean meat as well. A March 2017 report from the National Academies of Science highlighted the “high growth potential” for the clean meat field over the next decade. Mr. Schulze said Memphis Meats has no illusions about ending animal agriculture any time soon. Still, the vast size of the global meat industry ($750 billion per year in sales) means that even a foothold in the market could be quite large and impactful.

Mr. Schulze hinted that premium-priced product may be on the market as soon as 2019. He estimated current cost of production at $3,800 per lb. While impractically high, this figure is down from $6,000 a few months ago and $18,000 a year and a half ago. Clean meat companies seek to bring their cost of production to levels competitive with traditionally raised meat.

The clean meat phenomenon should be of great interest to grain-based foods executives. Should this technology successfully reach the market and broaden the appeal of meat, poultry and fish, demand for bread could be adversely affected. Grains accounted for 23.4% of U.S. caloric intake in 2010. Meat, poultry and fish ranked second, at 16.1% (ancillary category fats and oils was 22.4%), according to data from the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Wheat-based food production is not saddled by the massive inefficiencies inherent in animal agriculture, which requires the added step of an animal ingesting a plant before humans ingest meat from an animal. Still, the daring of the clean meat industry should inspire more boldly creative thinking around both how wheat is produced and the composition and quality of bread. Already, non-gluten flours are chipping away at the wheat flour stronghold. Innovation from within may become necessary to preserve the millennia-long position of bread and other wheat-based foods as the principal source of sustenance for humanity.