- Silicon Valley startup New Age Meats made history in September by letting journalists taste the first cell-based pork sausage made in a lab.
- Making meat without slaughter has been the primary objective of several companies since Dutch scientist Mark Post made the first “lab-grown” hamburger in 2013.
- This week, the company revealed a rough idea of how much the sausage costs to make and announced progress on nailing a formula that addresses one of the “holy grails” of clean meat.
On a crisp fall day in San Francisco, a startup called New Age Meats let people see how its sausage gets made — without butchering any animals.
In September, the company let a handful of journalists and prospective investors taste its prototype pork sausages, which had been made from animal cells brewed up in a piece of machinery akin to a small brewer’s vat. And now, the company says it’s making progress on getting the meat to your table at an affordable price.
Several other companies have been aiming to make a product like New Age Meats’ sausage since the creation of the first burger made from cow cells in 2013. They hope to slash waste, curb pollution, and improve animal and human health.
This week at an event organized by the Silicon Valley biotech funding hub IndieBio, Brian Spears, New Age Meats’ founder, revealed roughly how much the sausage now costs to make and announced progress on nailing a formula that addresses one of the “holy grails” of clean meat.
Sausage without slaughter
Last month, Spears and co-founder Andra Necula served their freshly cooked pork-sausage links — which had been made using fat and muscle cells generated from a single sample of a live pig named Jessie — to 40 journalists and prospective investors.
“We really thought, ‘Do we want to invest in another cultured-meat startup?'” Arvind Gupta, IndieBio’s cofounder, told Business Insider in September. “But after we met the team and saw what they could do, we had to.”
“This is the most product and the fastest production from any cultured-meat startup we’ve seen so far,” Gupta said.
As Spears, a chemical engineer by training, and Necula, a cell biologist, watched, the sausage sizzled in a pan with a little grapeseed oil. Slowly, it began to brown on each side like conventional sausage. The room filled with the smell of breakfast meat. After a few minutes — just before the sausage casing began to blister — we dug into our bite-sized samples.
It tasted like meat. Then again, it is meat.
The texture was distinctly sausage-like. After I’d chewed my bite, I wasn’t sure I would have been able to tell the difference between this pork sausage and any other. Perhaps it was a little drier, a little more crumbly? It was hard to tell from just one bite, but I was pretty sure there were no glaring differences.
New Age Meats says its pork sausage is 12x cheaper to make today than it was a month ago
Despite their hard work, Spears and Necula face many obstacles on the road to producing cost-effective clean meat. The two biggest hurdles involve making enough of the product affordably and nailing the meat’s recipe and texture.
Back in 2013, when Dutch scientist Mark Post became the first person in the world to make a beef burger from cow cells, his patty cost $330,000 to produce. Slashing that to a price that consumers would be willing to pay, even at a high-end restaurant, is still at least three years away, according to several investors in the leading companies in the space.
But this week, Spears said the meat was inching closer to being made at a cost of about $5 per breakfast sausage link. That’s about $23 per pound — still far pricier than than any other sausage or vegetarian sausage on the market but much closer to the goal that most of these companies are looking to hit.
For context, Spears revealed that each one of the three New Age Meats prototype sausage links they served at their tasting event in September cost $2,500 to produce, or roughly $11,400 per pound. That’s some 500 times more expensive than their goal and about five times pricier than Memphis Meats’ product which according to Wired cost $2,400 per pound in March.
Yet already, only about a month after the tasting event, Spears said they’d slashed that cost to $216 per sausage, or roughly $980 per pound. That means the meat is roughly 12 times cheaper to produce today than it was a month ago, less than half the cost of Memphis Meats, and roughly 1,500 times cheaper than Post’s burger.
Part of the cost problem has to do with the food these startups are feeding their farm-free animal cells, another hurdle that Spears announced that his company had made progress in clearing this week.
Many companies still use something called fetal bovine serum (FBS), a standard and relatively inexpensive lab medium made from the blood of pregnant slaughtered cows. To live up to their goal of replacing animal slaughter, these startups will need to find something new and slaughter-free that costs the same or less.
And while the prototype sausages that New Age Meats served at its September event were made using FBS, Spears said this week that the company planned to nail a serum-free recipe within two months.
Another issue with cell-based meat is the products’ texture.
Making a sausage, patty, fish cake, or any other product that combines several ingredients with ground meat or seafood is nowhere near as difficult as mimicking the complex texture and flavor of a steak or a chicken breast. To do that, startups will likely need to take many of their cues from regenerative medicine, where scientists strive to heal or grow real human tissues and organs. Applying those tools to the world of cultured meat could result in the first farm-free products that chew, slice, and taste like a traditional steak or thigh.
For this reason, Necula said she and Spears planned to continue working in the realm of sausage-like items, but they’re exploring options that include products made with beef, pork, and crab.
Several other startups appear to be making headway on their first cultured-meat products as well.
The CEO of Just, a Silicon Valley startup formerly known as Hampton Creek, recently tweeted a photo that appeared to show a prototype of its first cultured-chicken nuggets; Memphis Meats, the Silicon Valley startup that claimed it made the first lab-grown chicken and duck products in 2017, invited me to a tasting of its products before the year’s end. And New Age Meats made history with the first semi-public tasting of its sausage in September.
“How did we move so quickly?” Spears, an engineer, asked this week. “Because we were designed to.”
This article is an updated version of a story that was originally published on Sept. 18, 2018.
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