Challenges Facing the Cultured Meat Industry

Andy Ko
Challenges Facing the Cultured Meat Industry
Cultured meat, or the use of animal cells grown to create lab-grown meat products, has been a hot topic in recent years, with big milestones such as its commercialization in Singapore in 2020 and, recently, regulatory approval in the United States. So, when will cultured meat hit local supermarket shelves? The good news is that commercialization may be imminent for several players in the industry, with IDTechEx's "Cultured Meat 2023-2043" report forecasting that the market will exceed US$2 billion by 2033. However, achieving this at scale still requires overcoming large barriers.
The first barrier for cultured meat is regulation. Across the world, regulators have made good progress since the emergence of the industry a decade ago. The leader is Singapore, who approved Just Eat's Good Meat products back in 2020. To date, Just Eat's product has remained the only commercially available cultured meat product globally. However, this will soon change: several other leading players are also looking to enter the Singapore market. On the other side of the world, regulatory approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for UPSIDE meat's product indicates that the US market is opening soon.
In contrast, the EU parliament only had its first-ever debate on the topic of cultivated meat in 2022, an indicator that the approval process may still be a while away. The situation in China is more promising; they are likely to approve their first cultured meat before 2027, as the country's five-year agriculture plan explicitly mentions the adoption of cultured meat. However, before cultured meat enters new markets, regulators will have to consider how to label cultured meat products. Labeling should clearly differentiate the product from conventional and plant-based meat types, but missteps could profoundly affect the consumer perception of cultured meat. Certainly, consumer perception is king, and cultured meat players are keen not to echo the failure of genetically modified organisms.
The cost of production represents the second significant barrier for cultured meat's widespread commercialization. Specifically, the cost of growth media, the liquid broth in which cultured cells grow and proliferate until there is enough mass to form burgers, nuggets, or fillets, is a major issue that remains to be solved. Today, the companies that sell growth media predominantly serve the pharmaceutical industry, where relatively small quantities of cells are used to produce very high-value products. However, for cultured meat, over 500 liters of media is needed to produce 1 kilogram of meat. As it stands, one liter of growth media can still cost a few hundred dollars, almost all of which is attributed to a couple of essential, high-value ingredients called growth factors produced at high-cost and low volume.
The high cost of growth media is a common challenge that several cultured meat players are addressing as they aim toward commercialization. The demand from this emerging industry has also catalyzed a new wave of growth media providers looking to provide low-cost growth factors and low-cost media.
Optimizing the bioreactor within which cells are grown is another approach to addressing the cost of production. The bioreactor is the vessel where the cells grow and is a critical component in maintaining the optimal environment. The industry standard bioreactors are stirred tank bioreactors. While easily scalable, these tanks require a lot of medium, and the stirring can cause shear strain stresses on cells. Overall, these bioreactors are more suitable for the pharmaceutical industry than for cultured meat. Innovation in the cultured meat bioreactor space is developing, and there are signs of bioreactors beyond stirred tank designs that may improve production costs. For instance, packed bed and fluidized bed bioreactors are two designs that allow the cultivation of cells at much higher cell density than stirred tank bioreactors. With a higher cell density, much less volume of growth media is required to produce 1kg of meat in this type of bioreactor.
In conclusion, it may still be a while before consumers can easily buy cultured meat from local supermarkets. However, with the regulatory precedence set by Singapore and the US and innovations aspiring to enable production at scale, there are promising signs of an industry that will continue to grow. IDTechEx's report, "Cultured Meat 2023-2043", includes discussion of technical innovations on growth media and bioreactor design required for successful scale-up of the cultured meat industry.
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