Food Industry

Meet the startup that makes milk—without cows

My guest article originally published on Quartz –

Three young entrepreneurs in their mid-twenties sat nervously in the Hong Kong office of Solina Chau, one of the world’s most powerful women. Chau, founder of Horizons Ventures, oversees investments for multibillionaire Li Ka-Shing, focusing those investments on disruptive technologies she thinks the world needs.

She’d been introduced to Ryan Pandya, Perumal Gandhi, and Isha Datar by Horizons consultant Josh Balk, who himself had co-founded food tech start-up Hampton Creek just a few years earlier. Now, all four of them sat anxiously before Chau as they discussed the new start-up Perfect Day’s big idea: producing real milk without cows.

Only weeks prior, these three young idealists had hatched their business plan via online video chats. No, they weren’t interested in producing alternatives to milk, such as soy or almond milk. Instead, Perfect Day wanted to use a process called microbial fermentation to produce actual cow’s milk—but without any cows at all.

Humanity’s procurement of animal-based foods has remained stagnant for a long time. In the case of milk, we grow massive amount of crops using large swaths of land and other resources. We then raise cows, feed them those crops, medicate them, impregnate them, milk them, and eventually slaughter them. It’s intensive, requiring huge quantities of land, water, fossil fuels, and other resources.

Perfect Day’s plan was to make milk using the exact dairy proteins cows create, but with designer yeast instead of cows—and in a matter of mere days.

In other words, why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?

Well, maybe not free, but certainly far more efficiently—and thus far more profitably. In a process similar to how baker’s yeast produces CO2 to make bread rise and brewer’s yeast produces alcohol, Perfect Day’s yeast produces actual dairy proteins (like casein and whey). Food scientists program the genetic code into the yeast, and that yeast starts pumping out the desired proteins. The yeast never makes it into the final product, enabling the final product to be labeled GMO-free.

The entrepreneurs unceremoniously unveiled their prototype in a plastic water bottle they’d transported with them, pouring Perfect Day’s milk into Chau’s cup. Minutes later, they had a deal.

These twenty-somethings who hardly knew each other had walked into the meeting with a mere $30,000 in the bank account of their embryonic startup. They walked out with $2 million.

* * *

Four years later, Perfect Day has now raised millions more and has attracted talent from some of the world’s largest dairy companies. They plan to start by selling dairy proteins as functional ingredients for food manufacturers, with other dairy products not far behind. Having personally eaten from their early batches of yogurt, I’m convinced that they’re onto something big.

The company is part of a group of promising start-ups pioneering the field of “clean” animal products: real animal products grown without raising and slaughtering animals. The terminology is a nod to “clean energy,” but in addition to lightening the “food-prints” of animal products, clean milk and meat are also just, well, cleaner.

We’re warned to treat raw meat in our kitchens with extreme caution because it can carry E. Coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter, and other intestinal pathogens. But when growing clean meat, there are no intestines to speak of. Instead, from a tiny biopsy of an animal’s muscle, we can grow the meat we want to eat without the rest of the animal.

Just how much meat could we grow? When MIT Technology Review profiled Marie Gibbons—a fellow at the nonprofit Good Food Institute, which is working to hasten clean meat’s rise—they made it clear why venture capitalists like Chau are salivating: by taking a sesame seed-sized sample of turkey muscle, Gibbons just might feed the world.

“In theory, the growth potential is enormous,” MIT reported. “Assuming unlimited nutrients and room to grow, a single satellite cell from one single turkey can undergo seventy-five generations of division during three months. That means one cell could turn into enough muscle to manufacture over twenty trillion turkey nuggets.”

The venture capitalists pouring money into clean meat companies are betting that theory becomes fact. One company, Memphis Meats, has attracted capital from billionaires like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Jack and Suzy Welch.

But this isn’t all simply a product of Silicon Valley; even Big Meat has taken notice. Just last August, Cargill became the first large meat producer to invest in clean meat. In a Fox Business interview, Cargill CEO David MacLennan discussed his new investment, boasting that Memphis Meats “produces chicken or duck in a way that doesn’t use the resources that traditional meat uses. So it’s all about sustainability. Call it ‘clean meat’ if you will. It’s a way to produce meat in a different alternative that isn’t as resource-intensive.”

* * *

For millennia, animals have satisfied humanity’s desire for meat, leather, and other forms of sustenance. But as our population and demand for animal products increases, continuing to funnel more and more resources through more and more animals poses serious challenges.

The plant-based protein revolution is already underway, with major investment from Tyson Foods and others in start-ups like Beyond Meat that are producing amazingly meaty plant-based meats. These plant-based meat companies are extremely promising—and their products are gaining traction. One need look no further than the explosion of plant-based milks to see what might soon happen with plant-based meats. But they’re not making actual meat from animal cells, like Memphis Meats or actual dairy proteins, like Perfect Day.

For consumers who feel wedded to actual animal products, this nascent industry may soon allow us to have our meat and eat it too.

Food Industry

How Soon Will We Have Clean Meat?

Originally posted on

For those who contemplate the future, it seems as if clean meat (real meat grown from animal cells) is likely going to be a fact of life rather than a mere fantasy of animal welfare and environmental advocates.

Although most people enjoy the taste  of meat, conflicted feelings often arise when the reality of factory farms is discussed. These days, though, many scientists and investors are betting that such conflicted feelings may become a thing of the past. For people who crave the advantages of meat without the downside, clean meat in the coming years may offer an exciting alternative—and it’s already being tested today. In fact, I’ve eaten it several times now.

Over the past 50 years, human beings have doubled our meat consumption, creating a number of problems. First, animals require farmland, meaning that many rainforests and other wildlife habitats have been chopped down to produce more meat. These farm animals also need water and feed, which puts a strain on the environment as well. With the world’s population continuing to climb—and the demand for meat higher than ever before—eating a high-meat diet doesn’t seem as if it will be a sustainable proposition for much longer.

But what about those who still want to regularly include meat in their diets (i.e., nearly everyone)? For them, the ability to enjoy real meat divorced from such downsides may become a reality within years, not decades. And it could just do more to help protect the planet than nearly anything else realistically on the horizon right now.

Still, there’s much work left to do. Clean meat is still astronomically expensive. There are potential government regulations that could be helpful or crushing depending on how they’re written. And course, consumers need to be assured that such meat is safe and nutritious.

However, in the years since scientists first started harvesting stem cells and building meat from the ground up, a lot has changed. Today, clean meat often tastes fairly indistinguishable from conventional meat, and although the first few pieces of meat grown in the Netherlands  may have cost more than a quarter of a million dollars per burger, clean meat has now come down orders of magnitude.

With tissue engineers and stem cell experts chomping at the bit to make clean meat a reality, it seems as if it only a matter of time before we start to see these products popping up in our local grocery stores or even being delivered to our doorsteps. Such a future isn’t imminent in the next couple years, but starting in the early 2020s, don’t be surprised if what we think of as futuristic meat today becomes the norm of tomorrow.

Food Industry

What Does the Future of Clean Meat Look Like?

Originally published on

The globe is turning to more sustainable options in a variety of sectors, and the food sector is hardly immune to this trend. More specifically, the meat industry has recently been signaling greater interest in producing more alternatives to animal agriculture, including both”clean meat” (real meat grown from animal cells) and plant-based meat (meats comprised entirely of plants). In other words, while the meat industry has long been decried as the problem from an environmental perspective, it may be on the front-end of becoming part of the solution.Between health concerns, the large carbon footprint of producing conventional meat, and animal welfare considerations, there are certainly ample reasons for more manufacturers are looking for alternatives. So what exactly does the future of meat look like?

  • There is increasing demand expected for meat alternatives
  • Some of the largest meat producers are investing heavily
  • The meat industry will be critical to helping mainstream the proteins that right now are considered alternatives

Increased Demand

In 2018, consumers will spend more than four and a half billion dollars on alternative meat replacement products. This is the result of health concerns, as well as those who wish to do their part to be more sustainable. This value is expected to rise another roughly two billion dollars in just the next five years. Any sector that increase more than 150% in just five years is undoubtedly experiencing a massive ramp up in demand. As demand rises, investments in both plant-based and clean meat will begin to start flowing in.

Largest Meat Producers Investing

The alt-meat industry is beginning to garner investments from some of the biggest names and businesses in the world such as Bill Gates, Cargill, and Tyson Foods. As more money flows into the space, costs will continue to fall as processes are improved.

What’s in a Name?

Some in the meat industry today would like consumers to think of plant-based meat and clean meat as anything but meat. But if it looks like a duck and tastes like a duck, will consumers really feel the need to call it anything other than a duck? In Missouri, already there’s litigation challenging a new law banning the use of the word “meat” on products that don’t contain the flesh of a slaughtered animal. Elsewhere there are fights brewing over whether soy milk-makers should be able to use “milk” in the name at all. These will be critical debates and with outcomes that could either accelerate or hinder the mainstreaming of alternative proteins.

Food Industry

Why holiday meals might look radically different in the near future

My article published on

As we sit down to our family dinners to enjoy the season, how the meat on our table got to us may not be the most pleasant topic of conversation. But how the meat of our future holiday dinner tables gets to us may be much more interesting. In fact, if a group of entrepreneurs working to grow real meat outside of animals succeeds, our holiday roasts may not look that different from now, but the way they get to our tables will be anything but ordinary.

The way most of humanity has obtained its meat for the past several millenniums has remained relatively stagnant: From the ancient Egyptians to today’s North Americans, we’ve bred, fed, raised and slaughtered animals. Yes, things have gotten much worse for farm animals in the past 75 years with the advent of factory farming – and its associated cages, hormones and other ills – but the basic premise of raising animals to put meat on their bones, and ultimately ours, remains the same.

But that may soon change, as a group of startups has proven that it’s possible to divorce meat production from livestock-raising, and they’re now racing to commercialize the first “clean meat” humanity has known. Simply by taking a sesame-seed-sized biopsy of an animal’s muscle, we can put those muscle cells in a fermenter and cause them to grow just as they would inside the animal’s own body. And since this involves only producing the muscle and not the rest of the animal, the resources needed to produce such meat are substantially fewer than the way we obtain meat today.

To be clear, these companies aren’t making alternatives to meat; they’re producing actual animal meat, simply outside of animals’ bodies. It’s called “clean meat” because, like “clean energy,” it’s cleaner for the planet. After all, raising animals for food is a leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions, land and water use, antibiotic abuse, animal-welfare problems and more. That’s a primary reason many sustainability groups are so enthusiastic about the prospect of clean meats hitting the market, which they’re poised to do within just a few years.

But clean meats are also just, well, cleaner. The reason we’re warned to treat raw meat in our kitchens with great caution now is because there’s fecal contamination on it. E. coli, salmonella, campylobacter: These are all intestinal pathogens that can sicken us if we don’t cook our meat enough. But when growing clean meat, you just grow muscle and don’t need intestines at all. This absence of pathogenic bacteria is the reason why one startup working in this space, Memphis Meats, finds that its clean meat doesn’t spoil nearly as fast as conventional meat.

Michael Jacobson, co-founder of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, is one of the many food-safety advocates cheering on clean meat. The man who’s crusaded against the dangers of food additives such as trans fat and olestra is optimistic about the promise of cellular agriculture. “It’s a good way to have animal products that would be a lot safer to consume and more sustainable to produce,” he told me while I was researching my book. “I’d be happy to eat it.”

Will everyone be as eager to consume clean meat as Mr. Jacobson? As someone who’s already eaten clean duck, beef, fish, liver, chorizo and even yogurt – yes, all grown without living animals – I can attest that they taste great. But of course, some people may initially be less enthusiastic about eating foods they perceive as novel.

That said, if clean meat seems as though it’s from a science-fiction movie, the meat we eat today is more firmly rooted in the horror genre. After all, much of it comes from animals genetically selected to grow so fast they could barely walk. They’re confined indoors at all times, never see the sun, never step foot on a blade of grass, are pumped full of antibiotics and hormones and when it comes to hearing about how they’re slaughtered, most of us understandably prefer not to know. And the problems for the farm animals are bad enough, but our raising of them is a leading cause of wildlife extinctions, too. In fact, the World Wildlife Fund reports that the majority of global biodiversity loss stems from animal agribusiness.

So when we consider just how unnatural, unsustainable and inhumane meat production is today, clean meat seems like the naturally preferable option.

In addition to these clean meats, we already have another alternative available to us now: delicious plant-based meats that often really do taste like “the real thing.” These products are taking off in popularity, with even Maple Leaf Foods – Canada’s largest meat producer – recently buying two major plant-based meat brands, Field Roast and Lightlife.

Between the plant-based meats we already have today and the clean meats we’re likely to have in the near future, we’re now seeing the growth of a new agricultural sector that could do to factory farms what clean energy is beginning to do to fossil fuels.

As we enjoy our time with loved ones this holiday season and offer thanks for the many blessings we have, we may want to pause for a moment to consider our food. Yes, we’ve inherited a method of meat production that presents many difficulties for us, our planet and its inhabitants. But let’s give thanks for those working to help solve these problems by providing us with the foods we love, with a much smaller footprint to bring them to us. For them, we should be grateful.

Food Industry

Less is More: How Meat-Reducers are Changing the Game

Originally published on

There’s no doubt about it: plant-based eating is in. From major celebrities to everyday folks who want to be healthier, do better by animals, or save the planet, interest in vegan eating is going up.

But there’s a big difference between interest in vegan eating and interest in being a full-time vegan. As a recent poll from Gallup shows, the percent of Americans who consider themselves vegetarian or vegan hasn’t changed in decades. But the number of Americans trying to eat less meat…now that’s a different story. Plant-based eating is all the rage these days–among meat-eaters!

This reminds me of a time I was giving a speech and a woman in the audience announced that she could never go vegetarian because she couldn’t say no to her grandmother’s Friday night (Shabbat) turkey. I told her: then eat the turkey on Friday and be a vegetarian the other six days of the week! That’s not what I would do, but if this was truly the roadblock for this person, of course she’d be doing much better being a six-day-a-week vegetarian than a no-day-a-week vegetarian. Why let the perfect be the enemy of the good? (And in reality, there’s no such thing as perfect when it comes to dietary choices anyway.)

Plant-based eating isn’t some type of purity test where you commit one slip-up and you’re out of the club. It’s not a religion in which temporary imperfection leads to excommunication. For me and for many others, being vegan isn’t a declaration of some type of elusive “perfection.” It’s an aspirational statement to try to reduce the amount of harm we cause in the world. And in that game, doing less harm is better than doing more, but we recognize that we can’t eliminate all the harm we cause and we shouldn’t beat ourselves up–nor others–for not living up to some hallowed orthodoxy.

So, if you’re thinking about giving plant-based eating a try, pay yourself on the back. Don’t worry about going “all the way.” Just like with running, worry about taking your first step and then your next one. Progress begets progress. Just go at the pace with which you’re comfortable, have supportive friends and family around, and you’re sure to do better tomorrow than you did yesterday.