Lab-grown meat is falling out of fashion
Ivy Farm Technologies's threat to leave the UK reflects broader changes
One of the UK’s pioneers of generating animal tissue for human consumption is threatening to pack up its bioreactor and walk. Ivy Farms Technologies — it’s a pun on in vitro — has sounded the alarm.
As he eyes the door, Ivy Farms’ CEO Richard Dillon blames EU Novel Foods Regulations (NFR), which require that products derived from cell culture or tissue culture are safe and nutritious. But it’s hard to find evidence of the EU’s Food Standards Agency making capricious or unfair decisions on lab-grown meat, because it hasn’t had to make any. Commercial bioreactor products have yet to reach the market. The two biggest hurdles facing lab-grown meat are not of the EU’s making, and moving his company out of the UK won’t solve them for Dillon.
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One is the strong public revulsion to consuming animal tissue that has been generated from stem cells in a sterile laboratory. The other is economics: production costs remain stubbornly high, and a market willing to absorb those costs looks elusive.
Producing meat in a lab is expensive because the facility must recreate entire biological processes that nature does for us at almost no cost. A bioreactor requires an expensive growth medium of nutrients and minerals, which is about a third of the manufacturing cost, while it’s surprisingly labour-intensive. Labour is another third of the bill. Vast quantities of cells must be grown, and the resulting cell slurry must then be exercised vigorously so it begins to resemble muscle tissue. Fat must be added, requiring another intensive set of processes.
Ivy Farm Technologies is careful to steer journalists away from glimpsing the slurry, and does not allow it to be photographed, or even seen. It’s reportedly repellent. The entire product category is really one Daily Mail photo feature away from a terminal PR disaster. The factory will need to operate to strict pharmaceutical standards, as there is no equivalent to an animal immune system. Throw a sheep onto a fellside today, and all this comes for free. One recent analysis estimates that, once the costs are counted, the most optimistic breakeven price at wholesale for mass-produced lab-grown meat will fall to around $63 per kilo — four times the current cost of an Aldi Just Essentials Steak. And that’s before any markup for the producer or retailer.
So where’s the market for these novel luxury products?
Today, the meat market can be crudely segmented into two groups: wealthier consumers who happily pay a premium for artisanal authenticity and quality, and the mass market which cares less how its protein arrives, and just wants it to be cheap. The former group, which objects to livestock on ethical or environmental grounds, is not short of choice. They can opt for organic or other sustainably-reared meats, or vegetarian or vegan diets.
That’s already giving investors nightmares: the vegan bubble was bursting before the pandemic, and since interest rates began to rise, layoffs have hit the sector. Companies once hailed as pioneers, such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, have seen their valuations crash, and have laid off staff. British-based Heck recently scrapped almost all of its ersatz vegan meat products, saying the time wasn’t quite right.
Lab-grown meat is also far more CO2-intensive, a recent lifecycle study found, so climate change concerns are unlikely to motivate very many new in vitro burger enthusiasts. Therefore, the producers and their increasingly wary investors must find a very small spot on a Venn diagram. Their target customer will be an ethical consumer who frets about animal welfare, but not climate change, and doesn’t care that their £100 wagyu in vitro steak isn’t from a real and certified cow. Perhaps, out there, such a consumer exists.
Meat retains such a central role in our family and social rituals, it’s almost impervious to fashion, no matter how much cash is thrown at new “innovations” by venture capitalists. The rest of the world seems eager to join us — 84% of growth in meat consumption by 2030 will come from developing countries, the OECD estimates. Why do they bother?
How can lab grown ‘meat’ possibly be proven to be safe to eat for health ? – we only know that meat is safe to eat because our predecessors have been eating it for 10’s / 100’s of thousands of years
This product represents ultra+ processed food, it’s an abomination, along with the ultra processed vegetarian muck that claims to be healthy.
Weird that entrepreneurs would even bother with a product so wildly expensive, with such little consumer appeal.
Mmmmm, cell slurry.
It seems like it would be simpler to just genetically engineer the cows to fart less.
Well, there we go again. We don’t want genetically modified cow farts – we want the real thing!
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