Wild Type food for thought #5

Winter edition part 5 of 5: harnessing food trends

Public discourse about cell-based meat is now a nearly daily phenomenon. At the same time, a lively discussion is underway concerning trends that are transforming nearly everything about how we eat. What we haven’t seen, however, is a discussion of cell-cultured meat and fish within the context of the transformations underway in our food system. For example, what does the rise in popularity of organic, natural, and clean-label foods mean for cell-based meat and fish production? How can these new technologies address a growing demand for transparency and traceability in our food supply? We take up these questions and more in this post.

One of the most important changes to how we make food has been the renaissance of plant-based foods. The emergence of brands such as Ripple, Beyond Meat, and Impossible Foods has delivered tasty new choices to consumers who are increasingly asking for alternatives to animal-derived meat, dairy, and fish. The appeal of these products is driven by a desire for healthy and sustainable foods — a trend which we believe will only continue to accelerate.

Robotics and automation transformed the manufacturing sector more than thirty years ago. However, we’re only now seeing a similar revolution in food preparation and automation. You may have heard of Creator, a hamburger flipping robot, or Zume, which is automating pizza production and delivery. Similar transformations are underway in ingredient sorting, blending, processing, and packaging.

Cell culture has historically been a highly labor-intensive process. In most academic labs today, it’s not uncommon to see graduate students pipetting their youth away in tissue culture hoods. While automation is beginning to find its way into cell culture, there are significant opportunities for those of us in the cell-based meat field to design highly automated processes, which will not only help to lower prices, but will also ensure consistent product quality. Put differently, we should not design production processes using 20th century technology.

Despite the obvious nature of this statement, many of the conversations we’ve heard over the past two years involve some version of applying existing cell culture technology to the production of food. While this is a helpful starting point, might we benefit from blowing up at least some established cell culture dogma and beginning anew?

With respect to where we buy food, there are two significant trends that threaten to disintermediate the grocery store as the main hub for our food purchases. First, innovations such as vertical farming are making it possible to envision urban gardens that provide a significant share of our fruits and vegetables in cities.

Second, delivery services like Postmates and Amazon Fresh are making it easier than ever to avoid lugging shopping bags back from the grocery store. Meal preparation services like Purple Carrot and Blue Apron further erode the monopoly of our local grocery store.

Although grocery stores will not lose their primacy overnight, it does beg the question of whether those of us in the cell-based meat industry are spending enough time building partnerships with the likes of Postmates rather than Kroger. Additionally, cell-cultured meat and fish may help these companies continue to reduce the friction involved with purchasing and delivering food. For example, lighter packaging and ice-free shipping could make drone-delivered fresh salmon a reality.

How we choose food is changing as well. We have seen a dramatic increase in the popularity of terms like organic, clean label, local sourcing, and natural eating. Health considerations have also led to the emergence of highly customized diets that match food to specific health and dietary objectives.

For those of us in the cell-based meat field, we must consider how our production processes will enable us to satisfy these demands. For example, how might we design our cell nutrients to be fully organic in the same way that farmers feed their animals organic grain and vegetables? What would it take for a cell-cultured fish product to be considered ‘clean label?’ While questions of labeling will be guided by regulatory requirements, cultured meat companies should also consider how upstream design considerations affect downstream product descriptions.

Finally, how we monitor food is in the early stages of a profound transformation. Foodborne illness outbreaks both severe (avian flu) and commonplace (E. coli) have created demand for transparency into our food supply chains. Several companies are now trying to introduce blockchain as a solution. For example, Walmart recently announced that it would require its leafy green suppliers to use blockchain technology for tracking purposes. Additionally, several early-stage companies are pioneering advanced forms of spoilage detection.

Initially, cell-based meat providers will be able to provide exquisite traceability given the vertically integrated nature of production. As our field matures and more specialized players emerge, it will become increasingly important to consider how we might use technology to provide transparency and accountability in the supply chain.

Thinking critically about these and other food trends is important for those of us building new technologies for fish and meat production. If we’re not building a product that is consistent with evolving tastes and values, we risk building a product that no one will buy.

This concludes our winter food for thought series. We would welcome your feedback on these posts. Whether you agree, disagree, or would simply like to say hello, please reach out on Twitter or by emailing us. If you missed our previous posts, you can find them linked below.

Post 1: the business case

Post 2: supply and demand

Post 3: talent

Post 4: white space

Until next time.