Your First Lab-Grown Burger Won’t Contain Much Beef

It’s essentially a problem of scale. Proteins like soy and pea are produced on a mass scale for very low prices, but the cultivated meat industry is still reliant on supply chains that exist for the pharmaceutical industry, where margins are much higher. In Oxford in the UK, scientists at cultivated meat firm Ivy Farm Technologies are making a hybrid pork meatball made up of 51 percent pig cells, 7 percent pea protein, and then onion, herbs, and seasoning. The single cultivated meatball I tried at Ivy Farm’s pilot plant cost around $20 to produce, and 95 percent of that cost was driven by the animal cells, according to Ivy’s CEO, Rich Dillon.

This is why blending is likely to be the main approach used by cultivated meat companies to get products out, says Steve Molino, an investor at Clear Current Capital, a venture capital firm that specializes in cultivated and plant-based meat. A blended burger would be much, much closer to the price of a conventional burger than would a fully cultivated burger. It’ll also help deal with another problem likely to face cultivated meat early on: The total amount of meat produced is likely to be tiny.

There are no large-scale cultivated meat plants in the US. Upside Foods has the largest pilot plant, which can produce 50,000 pounds of cultivated meat each year. In 2021, by way of comparison, 51 billion pounds of chicken was produced in the US alone. Even for cultivated meat to make up a fraction of 1 percent of chicken meat supply in the US would take a quantum leap in terms of production. “The amount that is going to be supplied is so, so small that even enthusiasts are going to be waiting—and we’re going to be able to eat up all that supply very, very quickly,” says Molino. Mixing animal cells with plant-based protein will help this limited supply go a lot further, and allow companies to claw back more of the cost of building cultivated meat factories. 

This might sound like penny-pinching, but mixing meat with plants is nothing new, Dillon points out. Some sausages are just 42 percent pork, and it’s relatively rare to find a minced meat product that doesn’t have at least a few extra ingredients added to bind, bulk, or flavor. Conventional meat manufacturers have also experimented with making blending a virtue—a way to market meat that is better for people and has a lower carbon footprint. In the UK, supermarket Tesco sells a beef meatball blended with butternut squash and onion. It’s not clear whether this kind of blending has much appeal, however. US meat firm Tyson briefly made blended meat-and-plant burgers and nuggets before pulling them from shelves in 2020.

Mixing plant protein and animal cells also lets cultivated meat companies experiment with the ideal composition for a new product. “There are all these different levers to pull,” says Emma Lewis, chief commercial and product officer at Ivy Farm Technologies. They can play with the ratio of fat and muscle cells for a juicier or leaner meatball and try to dial in specific nutritional qualities. Ivy Farms has also been working with a premium burger restaurant that is interested in creating burgers made of a blend of cultivated beef and conventional meat. “It could be the most sustainable meat out there, or potentially the most nutritional burger, and still taste exactly the same,” says Dillon.

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