Is cell-cultured meat commercially viable? ‘We have to be able to show a clear path to profit at scale,’ says Memphis Meats VP

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Cell-cultured southern fried chicken (slaughter-free) from Memphis Meats (picture credit: Memphis Meats)
Cell-cultured southern fried chicken (slaughter-free) from Memphis Meats (picture credit: Memphis Meats)

Related tags Memphis meats cell-cultured meat cell-based meat

What will it take to make cell-cultured meat – growing animal cells outside of an animal to produce ‘real’ meat without slaughter – commercially viable on an industrial scale?

Blood, sweat and tears are a given, but we’ll also need to see significant movement in the price and availability of key raw materials before the industry can produce truly meaningful quantities of meat cost-effectively, said KC Carswell, PhD, VP process development at cell-cultured meat startup Memphis Meats, during a keynote speech at last week’s virtual Cultured Meat Symposium​.​    

“To convince our customers and investors that we’re a viable industry, we have to be able to show a clear path to profit at scale​,” said Dr Carswell, who is leading design and construction of Memphis Meats’ new pilot manufacturing facility​.

But she added: “This field is still in its infancy and the trajectory and the pace of change is really going to be massive.”

‘A drop in the bucket’

To provide some context of the scale of the challenge, she said, “Inthe US alone we produce approximately 100bn lbs a year of beef, pork and poultry.  

“Even the total global biopharma cell-culture capacity is a drop in the bucket when it comes to the scale of food. For mammalian cell-culture, globally there are approximately 5 million liters of existing installed manufacturing capacity. If you were growing cells in a continuous perfusion process at moderately high densities… you might harvest roughly a million pounds every day.

"So that really just meets the meat demand of about four million people. It’s a drop in the bucket.”

‘At some point you have to stop scaling up, and start to scale out’

When it comes to bioreactors for growing cell-cultured meat, the bigger you can go, the better, said Dr Carswell, noting that there are now more than 50 cell-cultured meat startups, with disclosed investment dollars topping $500m.

For one thing, labor costs come down significantly with scale, she said: “Say it take 2-3 people to run a 500 liter bioreactor, that doesn’t mean it will take 20 or 30 people to run a 5,000 liter bioreactor.”

However, “every time you go bigger with mammalian cell culture there’s risks,” ​added Dr Carswell, who didn’t say what size bioreactors Memphis Meats plans to work with.

At some point you have to stop scaling up, and start to scale out, and replicate what you have, but where that line is drawn, we’re going to have to find out, and it’s a question that every company is going to have to wrestle with.”

Currently, mammalian cell culture bioreactors have a demonstrated maximum of about 25,000 liters, she said, “but in the biopharma industry where they’re used, each and every time a bigger unit has been installed, it’s worked, so I wouldn’t say we’ve found a limit yet.”

Noting that “there areother technologies that might be more tailored to cell-based meat production and that is something we’re exploring,” ​she said that suspension bioreactor technology “has been proven to scale​,” however.

“It’s generally performed using some means of agitation to distribute cells as well as oxygen and other nutrients homogeneously inside of the culture vessel.”

As for making whole cuts, “to make meat this way requires massive scaling of relatively novel culture techniques,” ​she argued.

“There are a number of published hypotheses on how we will all get there, scaffolding, 3D printing, vessel angiogenesis and so on… there is a lot of work to be done to scale these types of non-homogenous tissue cultures, but we’re excited about the possibilities of meat products that could be made this way.”

Cost: ‘If you’re purchasing FGF from a catalog provider, the price is about $800,000 a gram’

When it comes to the raw materials needed to feed the cells at different stages of their development, she said, researchers in the space “may be ordering components for their cells in 500g bottles, but eventually we need to be talking about rail cars and barges to get the raw materials we need to make meaningful amounts of meat.”

And while amino acids such as lysine, methionine and glutamate are already made in large quantities (often via fermentation for use in the animal feed industry) at “prices of approximately $1 per kilo,” ​growth factors also needed in cell-cultured meat production are considerably more pricey, she said.

“For example, if you’re purchasing FGF - a protein often required by some of our meat cells - from a catalog provider, the price is about $800,000 a gram.”

By contrast, pricing for industrial enzymes used in laundry detergents is a more palatable $10 a kilo (or thereabouts), and yet they’re all proteins made recombinantly, she noted. “So there’s work to be done here.”

Going forward, she added: “We might require additional purification steps to clean up those crude proteins for cell culture use, but we aren’t stuck with the ridiculous catalog prices we see in research today. We need to find clever process solutions and cell feed formulations to ensure we’re translating our raw materials into meat in the most cost-effective ways.”

Regulatory: Impressed with engagement from FDA, USDA

On the regulatory front, Memphis Meats started conversations very early with the relevant officials and “continues to be impressed with the engagement, urgency and willingness to learn by both FDA and the USDA,” ​said Dr Carswell.


“Those first commercial moments will invite public scrutiny and questions on a global scale and as an industry we all need to be ready to answer them. Questions like: is it safe, is it meat, how much does it cost, how much can you make, and is it delicious?

"Consumers are also going to demand some degree of transparency about how their food gets to the plate.”

KC Carswell, PhD, VP process development, Memphis Meats

Consumer acceptance

As for consumer acceptance, “It doesn’t matter how efficient or cost-effective our technologies are, or how smoothly the regulatory path functions if nobody’s interested in the products​,” she noted.

However, she claimed, research suggests that “roughly two-thirds of US consumers would eat cell-based meat and many of those consumers are already planning on eating it regularly… Massive segments of the population in countries throughout the world are hungry for cell-based meat.”

Meanwhile,​ producing cell-cultured meat can be done without antibiotics, which is a real plus, given consumers’ concerns about the use of antibiotics in the conventional meat industry and its contribution to antibiotic resistance, she noted.

“Communicating regularly with the public is a key part of our strategy and could allow us to succeed where other food innovations have struggled.” KC Carswell, PhD, VP process development, Memphis Meats

Genetic engineering: 'We're open to all of the tools in the toolbox'

Asked about the use of genetically engineered cells for cell-cultured meat, Dr Carswell said Memphis Meats was “open to all of the tools in the toolbox that could help us make safe delicious products” ​although it hasn’t yet made a “firm decision on what product we’ll launch first and whether we’ll incorporate this technology​, but we’re certainly exploring all the options​.”

She added: “We’re certainly evaluating it as it can be useful took to make the products not only highly efficient to produce, but also safe and also healthy, so making products with healthy fat distribution, for example. It’s certainly on the table for us.”

How much will the first products from Memphis Meats cost?

Asked about the price tag for the first wave of products from Memphis Meats in an interview with FoodNavigator-USA in January 2020​, Steve Myrick, VP operations, said: "We believe we have a pretty clear path to bringing prices down to essentially conventional cost parity, and that will definitely take some time and some very meaningful scale above and beyond what we will be able to do in the pilot plant.​​

"That said, we don't intend to wait until we are price parity before we bring anything to consumers, because we think it is very important to have product out in the world and start collecting feedback and start educating consumers about what this is and why they should care about it," ​added Myrick, who was speaking to us after fter announcing a $161m funding round.

"We believe we have a pretty clear path to bringing prices down to essentially conventional cost parity ​​​[with meat from slaughtered animals].

"I think we will bring products to market initially at prices that are a premium to many other meat producers but hopefully not a very extreme one."

'The pilot plant will be animal agnostic'

Memphis Meats has not announced a date for product launch, but will likely begin with premium-priced products in restaurants, which are great places to engage in meaningful conversations with chefs and consumers and get useful feedback, said Myrick.

"We have been very careful to develop our production system so we can produce multiple types of meat from multiple species on the same equipment, so the pilot plant will be animal agnostic. It may produce chicken in one run and beef the next. As to what comes to market first, it's still an open question for us. We've prototyped beef, chicken and duck, and we've worked on other things we haven't announced."

Find out more about the Cultured Meat Symposium here​.

Product safety​ and labeling

Memphis Meats duck
Cell-cultured duck (picture: Memphis Meats)

When it comes to product safety, the FDA will work together with the USDA to oversee cell-cultured meat and poultry using existing regulatory frameworks. (Cell-cultured seafood is under the sole jurisdiction of the FDA.)

Under a joint agreement​​​​​ announced in March 2019 relating to cell-cultured meat and poultry, the FDA will oversee cell collection, cell banks, and cell growth and differentiation, with a transition to FSIS (USDA) oversight to occur during the cell harvest stage.

FSIS will then oversee the production and labeling of foods derived from these cells (click here​ to read more about terminology).

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