When a Lab-Grown Burger Costs $100, How Can It Possibly Compete With McDonald’s?
On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in May, Gastropod co-hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley sat down at a countertop in a test kitchen for a very unusual hamburger: taste test #97 at Bay Area-based company SCiFi Foods. The little slider looked straightforward, even old-school — a thin, crispy patty, smashburger style, with the standard fixings — yet the meat had come from a decidedly nontraditional source. Rather than growing inside a cow, these beef cells were grown in a lab and blended with plant-based ingredients, giving the burger a meaty flavor with practically none of the ethical implications of eating meat from industrially raised cattle.
The catch? According to Kasia Gora, co-founder of SCiFi Foods, that little burger cost in the “low hundreds of dollars.”
Cultivated meat is booming right now, with dozens of new companies promising to provide our increasingly meat-hungry planet with everything from cultivated burgers and bacon to lab-grown sushi and sashimi. One of the biggest companies in the field, Good Meat, made headlines this week when it debuted its lab-grown chicken at chef José Andrés’s restaurant China Chilcano in Washington, D.C. The dish, called anticuchos de pollo, features small chunks of skewered chicken as part of a $70 tasting menu. But Good Meat CEO Joshua Tetrick told Gastropod that his company, which also sells its chicken at a butcher shop in Singapore, is not exactly raking in the cash.
“With every sale it’s historic, and with every sale we lose a bit of money,” Tetrick says. Basically, these early sales are a proof of concept — a loss leader that the industry hopes will build enthusiasm and keep investors on board while they figure out how to deal with their biggest headache: cost.
Lots of coverage of cultivated meat has focused on the scientific challenges, the regulatory approval hurdles, and even the potential ick factor among consumers. But, in reporting its latest episode, “Where’s the Beef?,” Gastropod found that the real story is money. If a burger costs north of $100, it doesn’t really matter whether it tastes good (it did) or is more ethical (it is) or could help save the planet (TBD), because no one is going to choose to regularly buy it over its conventional competitor. The industry will fail — it won’t achieve its own goals of making a dent in industrial animal agriculture and fishing, and, once it burns through its venture capital funding, it won’t have enough revenue to keep going.
So, is cultivated meat doomed? In its latest episode, Gastropod co-hosts Cynthia and Nicky ate a lot of cultivated meat, but also spoke to scientists, CEOs, and analysts to find out.
So, why is that burger so expensive?
For most companies working on cultivated meat, the biggest cost doesn’t necessarily come from their fancy labs or the cutting-edge technology they’re working with — it’s simply the costs of keeping the cells alive.
First of all, there’s what you feed them. Unlike other cells grown at scale in factories, like baker’s yeast, you can’t keep animal cells alive on sugar; they need amino acids, which are currently really expensive to produce.
The other big issue is the scale at which these cells can be grown. They’re currently grown in 3,000-liter stainless steel tanks called bioreactors. That sounds pretty big compared to a test tube in a lab, but it’s actually artisanal at the food factory scale. The other place these size bioreactors are used is in the pharmaceutical industry. In other words, they’re perfect for growing small amounts of super high-value products and not so great for making cheap meat.