The future of protein

We spoke with the cardiologist at the forefront of cellular agriculture.

Health benefits and a lower environmental impact are often reasons people cite for following a vegetarian or vegan diet. But soon, eating meat and animal welfare might not have to be mutually exclusive. Clara Foods, for instance, is working on creating an egg through biotechnology, which harvests protein identical to that of egg whites solely from plants, thus removing the chicken from the equation. Another example: Perfect Day is working to make milk without a cow.

Similarly, start-ups are expanding the field of cellular agriculture with the goal of creating animal products such as chicken, turkey, and beef from cell cultures. Leading the charge in using labs to grow meat is cardiologist Uma Valeti, the founder of Memphis Meats, whose "meatball" YouTube video went viral last year. What Valeti is calling the 'world's first cultured meatball' is made using live cells extracted from a cow that are grown into tissues and muscle. The result: real beef without harming the animal (and it's not to be confused with genetically modified food). Those who have tried early samples of it are saying it tastes like the real deal as well.

We spoke with Valeti (who expects the product to be on the market within the next five years) about the importance of test-tube proteins and how the science is progressing.

How were you inspired to form Memphis Meats and why do you consider cultured meat important?

Through my work in the medical field I saw first-hand how stem cells could be used to treat human cardiovascular disease by regenerating heart muscle tissue. That knowledge, combined with my concerns about modern meat production, led to the idea of growing meat directly from animal cells, without the animals. Then, I did initial research in this field and established a team of expert foodies and scientists. We intend to make our products protein-packed and better for the body. Not only do we reduce health risks associated with fecal contamination or illness, we also add environmental benefits. If the US switched to Memphis Meats beef, we would expect it to reduce as many greenhouse gas emissions as the equivalent of taking almost 23 million cars off the road and we could save the amount of land roughly equivalent to the size of Montana. One Memphis Meats burger could save the amount of water used in 51 showers. Finally, our products detach animal slaughter from the meat production process.

How does the nutritional value compare with traditional meat?

Nutritionally, we expect our products to be comparable to conventionally-produced meat. We are also looking into ways we might make our products healthier, in terms of fat profile, protein content, cholesterol content, and more.

What challenges does Memphis Meats face?

Our biggest challenge is reducing the cost of production. We are confident that we will be able to overcome this challenge. We’ve already reduced the cost of production by more than 100-fold since we started our research. And while we might initially enter the market at a slight price premium, as we scale-up we are confident we will be able to produce meat at a price that is cost competitive with (and eventually more affordable than) conventionally-produced meat.

What obstacles are there in getting consumers to accept lab-grown meat?

We find that once people become aware of our meat—and the potential benefits it can offer to the body, the planet, and the animals—they become overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the products. We believe that as long as people are informed, they will embrace our movement.

What’s next for the company?

We will continue to work on lowering the cost of production and developing new products. While we wanted to start with some of the classic meat staples that Americans love (i.e. burgers, hot dogs, meatballs, and sausages), we are also working on some other products (to be announced at a later date).