Tyson spreads its protein bets with minority stake in cultured meat start-up Memphis Meats

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Tyson spreads its protein bets with minority stake in cultured meat start-up Memphis Meats

Related tags Clean meat Agriculture Meat

If some commentators are predicting a pitched battle between plant-based, animal-based, and cellular agriculture, Tyson Foods - the largest meat-packer in the US is clearly more agnostic about its protein sources – with its venture arm taking a minority stake in cultured meat start-up Memphis Meats, a month after upping its stake in plant-based meat brand Beyond Meat.

In a statement announcing the investment (of an undisclosed sum) in Memphis Meats, Tyson Foods’ EVP corporate strategy Justin Whitmore said the move would “broaden our exposure to innovative, new ways of producing meat, especially since global protein demand has been increasing at a steady rate​.”

He added: “We continue to invest significantly in our traditional meat business, but also believe in exploring additional opportunities for growth that give consumers more choices​.”

Tyson is the second meat company to publicly announce an investment in cultured (aka 'clean' meat) - Cargill joined a $17m funding round​ in Memphis Meats in August that was also backed by other unnamed "food industry giants"​ – and is committed to providing consumers with choices, said CEO Tom Hayes.

When it comes to protein sources, he added, Tyson is spreading its bets: “This isn’t an “either or” scenario; it’s a “yes and” scenario…

“The question facing all of us: How will we feed this growing number of people the protein they want, in ways that are sustainable?

“We believe it will take a combination of innovative and traditional approaches. That’s why Tyson Foods is investing in alternative proteins through Beyond Meat and Memphis Meats, giving our growing population more ways to feel good about the protein they’re eating.”

The mechanics of clean meat

Memphis Meats, which unveiled a meatball in February 2016 and chicken and duck produced from poultry cells without raising animals in March 2017, has not gone into detail about the nature of the scale up process for producing its wares, but VP business development Steve Myrick told FoodNavigator-USA last year that production costs were continuing to come down.

"We've learned a lot and we are continuing to reduce costs on a really rapid trajectory and we've had positive declines faster than we even expected to over the last several months."

While they may initially carry a premium price tag, Memphis Meats was confident that it would over time be able to produce meat at parity or below the price of conventionally-produced meat, in a manner that is greener, cleaner and kinder, added Myrick.

It has also made significant progress in validating an alternative to animal serum for the growth medium, the nutrient bath the cells need in order to survive and grow, he added.

"We've validated a production path that does not require serum, and we are in the process of rolling that out into everything we do."

(Fetal bovine serum - which pioneers in the clean meat space growing beef have typically used - is derived from blood extracted from a fetus after it is removed from a slaughtered dairy cow, which is not consistent with the philosophy underpinning cultured meat, and can also be inconsistent from batch to batch, and is in limited supply.)

As Hampton Creek director of cellular agriculture told FoodNavigator-USA in November,​ traditional meat companies are obvious partners for clean meat brands in that while they are no experts in cellular agriculture, they already have an established infrastructure for handling, packaging, distributing, selling, and marketing meat.

Why clean meat?

According to the Good Food Institute (GFI),​ cell cultured ('clean') meat offers several advantages over traditional meat in that it does not contain bacterial pathogens that pose food safety risks; it has a longer shelf life; it would not suffer from price/supply volatility risks from animal infectious diseases (avian flu, porcine epidemic diarrheal virus); requires fewer inputs for a given quantity of meat, and is "more controllable and tunable,"​ enabling production of only high-grade meats in quantities dictated by consumer demand, rather than by the biology of the animal.

Speaking at FOOD VISION USA​,​ senior scientist Dr Liz Specht said life cycle analyses indicated that clean meat would require >90% less water and land than conventional meat, and would reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly, including eliminating methane emissions.

Moreover, clean meat “does not contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria or zoonotic disease outbreaks that emerge from intensive animal agriculture operations​,” she added.

Finally, “clean meat does not present the animal welfare concerns of conventional meat, which are increasingly important to consumers,” ​she said.

Will consumers buy clean meat?

However, several food marketers at FOOD VISION USA predicted that selling cultured meat to consumers - despite its animal welfare and sustainability credentials - could prove challenging, given the strong trend towards more ‘natural,’ minimally processed foods using traditional processing techniques.

Who's who in clean meat?

The best known names in the clean meat space are Memphis Meats,​ Finless Foods​ ​and Hampton Creek​ in the US, mosameat​ in the Netherlands, Future Meat Technologies​ and SuperMeat​ in Israel, and Integriculture​ in Japan. (New Jersey-based Modern Meadow​ has pivoted from food to other applications such as animal-free leather.)

Speaking at our FOOD VISION USA​ ​conference in November 2017, however, Good Food Institute​ senior scientist Dr Liz Specht said there has been a flurry of new players entering the space over the past couple of years, some of which are in “stealth mode, and not publicly disclosed yet​,” while others “are so new they don’t even have logos yet.”

The path to commercialization

In a mapping document​ penned by the GFI, the authors predicted that clean meat would likely come to market in phases, with the first products perhaps hybrids combining clean meat and plant-based meat; followed by ground meat products (nuggets, burgers); and finally those mimicking steaks or chicken breasts, which present significantly greater technical challenges.

“The first products that come to market may be hybrid products wherein clean meat is included as a part of plant-based products that essentially require only cell lines, media, and proliferative bioreactors to come to fruition.”

They add: “The next commercial products will likely be ground meat mimics, where scaffolding can be minimal; more complex structures requiring vascularization or perfusion bioreactors are not necessarily required.

“Finally, more structured tissues – like those mimicking steaks or chicken breasts – will require research and development in all of the areas outlined above. Thus, a consideration of target product(s) should drive the R&D focus.”

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