In the foothills of a mountain in a rural part of Japan northwest of Tokyo, a farm called Toriyama painstakingly breeds and raises cattle to make Wagyu beef–delicately marbled meat that sells for around $100 a pound. In a lab in San Francisco, food scientists now plan to recreate Toriyama’s meat in a bioreactor.
It’s the newest project for Just, Inc., the startup formerly known as Hampton Creek, which launched in 2011 with a focus on plant-based alternatives to animal ingredients in products like mayo. Its history has been drama-filled, involving fights with the FDA over the definition of “mayo,” a controversial program to buy its own products off store shelves, and board members resigning en masse over concerns about the direction of the company. But the company has continued, and now sells mayo, dressing, cookie dough, and a bean-based product that turns into something resembling a scrambled egg in a pan. A little more than two years ago, the startup also started developing products in the category sometimes called “clean meat” or “cultured meat,” which is made from animal cells without the need to slaughter an animal.
“Our theory is that given that human beings have been eating meat for about 2.4 million years, it’s a hard sell to get them to stop eating meat now, especially now that most of humanity is rising up out of poverty,” says Josh Tetrick, the company’s CEO. “The best way to deal with the meat challenge is just to make better meat without all the issues associated with killing animals today.” Those aren’t just issues of animal ethics; the meat industry is also one of the world’s largest contributors to climate change.
Inside the company’s headquarters, a sprawling, 90,000-square-foot former bread factory in the Mission District in San Francisco, several teams are working on the challenge of growing meat in a vat. In one lab, scientists isolate different cells that have been harvested from an animal–without harming it–and culture the cells, and then begin selecting high-performing cells to test further. In one corner of the room, large flasks are filled with cells and a liquid that feeds them. A machine shakes the flasks, encouraging the cells to grow.
The basic techniques aren’t new and have been used in medical research for decades–for example, in tissue engineering of organs for drug discovery. But Just, along with a handful of other food companies, is trying to alter the process to make a product cheap enough to eat. One challenge is the cost of the liquid medium that feeds the cells. “Most of the time, the media formulations that are available for medical research are expensive, and we would never be able to make a meat product affordable for consumers,” says Vitor Santo, a senior scientist in cellular agriculture at Just. So the company is creating a medium of its own.
In another corner of the building, researchers in the company’s “discovery lab” are searching for new, cheaper ingredients to feed the meat cells. On one side of the lab, biochemists analyze various plant ingredients for their protein contents. On the other side, custom machines do the same thing robotically. One machine is filled with tiny vials of powder, made from plants from the company’s giant plant library downstairs. (Udi Lazimy, the company’s global plant sourcing and sustainability lead, has sourced plants from more than 65 countries, from rare varieties of beans from Thai hill tribes to tree fruits from the Amazon, and says that one of his key job qualifications is knowing how to use a machete.)
In the back of the lab, a large, patent-pending robot called Randy Johnson–after the baseball player, because of his nickname “Big Unit”–studies how the proteins interact with facts. Data scientists collect data from all of the machines in the lab to decide which of the most promising ingredients can be tested further.
Back downstairs, researchers test feeding those ingredients to chicken or bovine cells, focused on what grows fastest. “The key now is proliferation–we want to make sure that we can scale up quickly from a small number of cells to a huge number in the shortest time possible,” says Santo.
In yet another lab, researchers are growing meat at a larger scale inside a 50-liter bioreactor. To the naked eye, what’s inside looks just like liquid. But when the medium is separated out, you’re left with “a cell paste that resembles a ground meat product,” he says. “This is what we then deliver to our team of chefs to tell us if the cells are a good candidate or not for the final product.”
In the company’s kitchen, food scientists and chefs play with ingredients. The product closest to market now is chicken. The startup is ready to begin selling it to high-end restaurants to serve in tiny portions–due to the high cost of early production–in the form of something like a chicken nugget, as soon as it gets regulatory approval. The conversations with regulators are positive, the company says, but because the product is completely new, agencies are being abundantly cautious.
On my visit to the lab, I bring my editor along to taste the new chicken; as a long-time vegetarian, I’m not sure I remember exactly what chicken tastes like. He tries a chicken nugget and says it tastes like chicken. Technically, it is chicken.
Wagyu beef will be one of the next products. In a new agreement, Toriyama Farm will provide cells from its animals to Just once a quarter. The Japanese farm invests heavily in research of its own to breed cattle that have both the characteristic marbelized swirls of fat that Wagyu is known for, and an umami flavor. (The farm maps the genetics of its cattle, for example, and uses an artificial taste analyzer.) Despite the long tradition of Wagyu production in Japan, the farm was receptive to a new method of production that could make the meat accessible to more people. “We want to undertake a new style of beef production that overcomes problems with the current manufacturing method,” says Wataru Toriyama, senior vice president of Toriyama Co. Recreating the farm’s beef, and its blend of fat and muscle cells, will be a challenge, even in a ground product like hamburger. The startup won’t share the details of the proprietary methods it’s using to make its prototypes, but says that it’s technically feasible to grow fat and muscle cells separately and combine them.
“Conventionally produced beef and cultured beef are different products, but we believe there can be a market for both,” Toriyama says. “We believe that the tradition of Japanese Wagyu beef will not be lost—in fact, it will be enhanced because more people around the world will be able to learn about it and taste it.”
For Just, it makes sense to produce ultra-high-end beef because if you make meat in a bioreactor, the cost is the same no matter the type of meat. “The interesting thing about cellular agriculture is it’s not any more expensive to source a cell from the highest-end cow in the world as the cheapest cow in the world,” says Tetrick. The company plans to focus on other high-end meats as well, like Iberico pork. “Ultimately, we want to get the cost of production of those below even the production of the cheapest meats, and that’s how we end up really shifting the system.”
The company still has major challenges ahead. After researchers figure out how to make cells grow quickly enough to address cost issues, it will move its focus to flavor; the nutrients fed to the cells can be tweaked to affect the taste of the meat. No one knows, yet, exactly how much of the flavor of beef from Toriyama’s beef comes from the fact that the cattle live in the mountains, or eat a particular feed, or are carefully brushed by the farmers, rather than their genetics. (It’s possible, too, that by harvesting a sample of cells from an animal after a year or two of its traditional life and diet, those influences might carry through to the cells.) Just will also have to work on the process of creating meat with structure, likely with a 3D printer that can layer muscle and fat together. Right now, the meat it produces has to be a ground version; the first Wagyu product will likely be a burger.
But as it scales up, it envisions massive production facilities replacing traditional factory farms. Instead of Smithfield Foods’ industrial hog farms in North Carolina, for example–which were recently ordered to pay hundreds of millions in damages to neighbors because of overflowing sewage–pristine “cultured meat” plants of a similar size could eventually have several massive bioreactors, 3D printers, and a conveyor belt popping out products. In a sketch of what a plant might look like, the company shows huge glass walls and visitors watching the process. “It’s a very transparent process, with people bringing their families, which is something you don’t currently see at a slaughterhouse,” says Santo.