Tissue culture beef, in vitro meat, cruelty-free steak. Whatever you call it, lab-grown beef could provide an answer to some of the world’s biggest food and environmental challenges. Senior Lecturer Jose Alvarez explores if, when, and how it will find its way into stores and onto grills.
The Whopper. The Big Mac. The Baconator. Tissue Culture Beef.
One of these things does not sound like the others, and therein lies the problem for Dr. Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Post is the architect of a $300,000 burger made entirely from tissue culture beef, or muscle tissue grown in a laboratory with cells procured from a cow. His product and process could completely reinvent the way human beings feed themselves and thus solve a host of other intractable problems along the way.
So when will cultured beef be flying off the shelves?
“Every time I teach this case, I run into the same reaction among participants—the ‘yuck’ factor,” Jose Alvarez, a former CEO of the Stop & Shop grocery chain, said in a recent interview. “I’m certain the technological hurdles of tissue culture beef will be overcome, but the ideological hurdles will be much more difficult. The real issue is: how do you get people to eat this?”
“THE REAL ISSUE IS: HOW DO YOU GET PEOPLE TO EAT THIS?”
Tissue culture beef faces a marketing problem. For all its potential benefits (and there are many), a lot of people are skeptical about eating meat grown in a lab. That skepticism takes a number of forms, from mistrust in big food companies to unknown health consequences to ethical concerns about consuming meat not produced by a living animal (what Post readily admits is a version of cloning). No matter what, the underlying question of how to get people to overcome their skepticism looms large. It’s a question Alvarez, now a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, poses in his case Disrupting the Meat Industry: Tissue Culture Beef, which he teaches as part of the School’s Agribusiness Seminar.
“Everybody has to eat,” Alvarez said. “And this puts food retailers in an enviable position. But it also creates some big problems. How do more than seven billion people on earth get enough to eat? And what is it they will eat as they become more affluent?”
It’s no stretch to say that what Post is doing is revolutionary, given that it offers some answers to these seemingly impossible questions. Through his process, just a few cells from a single cow could generate up to 175 million quarter-pound hamburgers, or roughly what McDonald’s sells worldwide each month (by contrast, it takes 440,000 cattle to produce the same number at present). Cultured beef would require 90 percent less land and 70 percent less energy to implement than conventional cattle farming measures, and do away with many of the associated pollutants and waste. It could also help eliminate variability in meat quality and incidents of food-borne illness.
As the world’s population and its appetite for meat steadily increase, and the land and resources available to produce that meat rapidly shrink, cultured beef could be the future. But in the present, it threatens a global meat industry valued at $177 billion, and could put millions of jobs in jeopardy, which makes it something of an unappealing option for food purveyors in the short term.
“Given the demand for meat in the world, we’re running out of places where retailers can get adequate supply,” Alvarez said. “Tissue culture beef solves that and addresses the issue of consistency, which is another big problem for retailers. It allows you to put out the same product every time, pretty much to perfection. Between those commercial advantages, and all the plusses from an environmental and space perspective, I think retailers will eventually come around to seeing tissue culture beef as an ally.”
Post already has backing from Google cofounder Sergey Brin and has had great success refining his process and lowering costs since he produced his first patty in 2013. His progress has been so extensive that he believes he will be able to bring the product affordably to market in only a few more years, going so far as to imagine retailers and even individual customers ordering out for cultures and growing the beef in their stores and homes. Still, the marketing challenge remains.
“It’s so interesting that people are caught up in the ‘yuck’ factor here,” Alvarez said. “And yet we never think about what it means to get a hamburger at a fast food restaurant and what that involves. That’s a pretty strange process in and of itself.”
One thing those fast food hamburgers have over tissue culture beef is catchy names. So, a potential solution could lie in tying cultured beef in title and public perception to animal welfare, which is what initially sparked Brin’s interest and investment. In consumer surveys in the Netherlands, for example, Post found that 63 percent of respondents supported cultured beef. The number one reason they did so was to prevent animal suffering since, unlike with cattle farms, no animals are stressed or mistreated in the growth process. But however it is packaged, labeled, and pitched, the bottom line for tissue culture beef is that it will not succeed until it looks, smells, and tastes like what consumers are used to. Post is hard at work perfecting that, including adding fat cells to the lean meat to bolster its taste and mouthfeel and tissue culture myoglobin to create the appropriate coloring.
For his part, Alvarez doesn’t try to fully answer the marketing question, preferring to let his students weigh the pros and cons themselves. And because so many larger issues intersect it, teaching the case engenders lively discussions on everything from supply chains to the fate of the planet.
“I’ve taught this case to several hundred senior executives in the food space,” Alvarez said. “I always try to convey the importance of thinking ‘beyond the bun’, as Taco Bell might say, beyond where we are today and about how consumer habits can change. We can make phenomenal progress by being open-minded, and we walk at our own peril if we’re not thinking about these issues and trying to drive good thinking in food organizations that are so fundamentally important to our existence.”