Scaling and consumer buy-in considered crucial aims during second annual conference
Less than six months after gaining federal approval for the sale of lab-grown chicken in the U.S., scientists, investors, government leaders, and other key stakeholders convened for Cellular Agriculture Innovation Day 2024 at Tufts University, the second annual conference dedicated to advancing the consumption of cell-cultured meat.
The atmosphere at Joyce Cummings Center on January 11 was less focused on celebrating wins, however, than on next steps. The immediate goal, according to industry leaders, must be securing additional funding for food-science research as well as increasing consumer confidence in lab-grown meat products. In the longer term, sustainably building out the infrastructure needed to produce cell-cultured meat on a large scale will be essential.
For Sanah Baig, USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics, these aims align well with the Biden administration’s own “bold goals” plan to reduce global methane emissions from food and agriculture by 30 percent within the decade.
“Global demand for meat is at an all-time high, and protein production will need to be doubled by 2050,” said Baig during welcoming remarks. “You all understand better than most that we simply cannot meet these needs by maintaining our status quo systems. We will need cellular agriculture driving us forward to develop more novel protein sources that use less of our precious natural resources.”
Baig congratulated food technology companies Upside Foods and GOOD Meat for their “collaborative approach to working with regulators,” in the run-up to USDA approval, invaluable work toward setting up the entire industry for success. “Moving forward, we're going to build on that milestone by continuing to push the scientific boundaries of what is possible for cellular agriculture,” Baig said.
While lab-grown chicken is currently being served in two restaurants in the U.S.—Bar Crenn in San Francisco and China Chilcano in Washington D.C.—it is unclear as to when the product will be available in grocery stores. However, with more government funding and continued collaboration among researchers and entrepreneurs, experts are optimistic.
“A lot of the technology, in my opinion, already exists. It's just about bringing it together,” said Ryan Sylvia, Program Manager and Senior Scientist at MilliporeSigma in Burlington, Massachusetts. “The analogy I was thinking about is Amazon. They didn't invent the internet, delivery, or online shopping, and somehow they built an empire.”
“This industry is not that far off,” Sylvia continued. “There's a lot of technology out there that just needs to be brought together by smart people in the right ways.”
The ongoing challenge, panelists agreed, is funding. “Money is always an issue, and for one company to do it all is almost impossible,” said engineer and consultant Bert Frohlich, EG93, of BioPharm Designs. “A few have tried, and now they’re in trouble. So I think the way forward is consortium—partnerships between academia, government, and industry. It's been said multiple times at this conference. We need support from the government to make that happen.”
On the topic of scaling and infrastructure, or the prospect of a single cellular agriculture company producing as much cell-cultured meat as the average conventional meat facility, Yossi Quint of Boston-based Ark Biotech did not mince words. “What’s needed is not a 10x increase, or a 100x increase, or even a 1,000x increase, but probably a 10,000x increase,” Quint said. “It's not about incremental changes. We're talking about a revolution about reimagining what infrastructure looks like.”
One path forward, said Lily Fitzgerald, Senior Manager at MassTech Collaborative, is to continue to attract like-minded companies to one place. “As someone who recently joined the public sector, I’ve learned a lot about how much innovation there is in Massachusetts. So many of these problems that we're talking about, where we need chemical and mechanical innovations to help make this infrastructure cost effective, the tools really are here.”
Quint concurred. “There's a massive, massive opportunity for shared infrastructure, for scale-up infrastructure,” he said. “And Massachusetts should be the home for that. We are the biotech hub, and we should be the scale-up hub.”
But will expanded infrastructure equal more demand? Cellular agriculture professionals still debate the best ways to market the taste, texture, and safety of lab-grown meat to ordinary customers.
“The Holy Grail for every technology in this space is that you don't care that it was made differently,” said Ben Berman, A15, of Tomorrow Farms, creator of Bored Cow, a brand of fermented, “animal-free” dairy milk. “We're trying to focus on the protein and nutrition, the fact that this will froth and foam like real dairy milk. If we can sample it in your grocery store, we typically see a sustained tripling of our velocities in those stores.”
“I think getting consumers to understand from a place of familiarity, as opposed to throwing a new science in their face, is really how you win,” said Nicki Briggs, N08, vice president of corporate communications at dairy-alternative firm Perfect Day. “The more that companies can start to understand where consumers are at—especially your consumer for your product—and really unlock those moments of familiarity, [the more they] will have huge upsides.”
Former USDA regulator Eric Schulze of GoodHumans Strategy & Design stressed the importance of creating foods people can trust. “Don't take safety for granted. When you’re making a food product, it must be safe,” he said. “What's important is that the consumer is a part of the safety process.”
“The products that will come out of this room will probably be unrecognizable from the products that are coming out today,” Schulze said. “We will see a blurring between biopharma and food. And it will be about what meat can be rather than what is.”