Keith Nunes 2019KANSAS CITY — Cell-based meat companies, also known as cultivated meat companies, attracted more than $360 million in funding in 2020, according to the Good Food Institute. Investments during the first six months of 2021 have nearly eclipsed that figure, and a food category that once was considered nearer to science fiction is becoming crowded and slowly moving closer to commercial reality.

Eat Just, Inc., a maker of plant-based egg alternatives, secured $170 million in funding in May to scale Good Meat, its cell-based meat subsidiary. Aleph Farms, Ltd., a company seeking to produce steaks directly from animal cells, announced in June it had raised $105 million in funding. The money will be used to execute its plans for global commercialization of its products, according to the company.

Cell-based seafood producer BlueNalu closed on a $60 million funding round in January. The money is going toward opening a pilot production plant, completing a regulatory review by the Food and Drug Administration and testing products in the marketplace.

The market insights company Lux Research estimates more than $800 million has been invested in the cell-based meat category since 2016 and that there are about 80 startups competing to develop technologies and applications to propel the market forward. The nascent category has come a long way since 2017 when it was first covered in depth in the pages of this magazine and, at the time, dubbed “clean meat.” The description of using primary cells taken from a living or recently slaughtered animal, culturing them so they will multiply and then directed to become the constituent parts of meat belied the potential of the category. Today, companies are “growing” meats from the cells of beef, pork, chicken and fish. Product applications are evolving from a ground or comminuted texture to applications that have a whole muscle texture.

The question is no longer if the technologies used to develop products are viable, but how they will be regulated? In addition to price and achieving economies of scale, Lux Research identified regulatory approval as a principal challenge facing the cell-based meat category and noted that while Singapore’s approval in 2020 is a step in the right direction, there is still a lack of clarity on global regulations.

That lack of clarity is apparent in how US regulators are approaching the category. In 2019, the US Department of Agriculture and the FDA created a joint regulatory framework for cell-based meat approval. Yet the joint proposal only covers livestock and poultry, but not seafood, which is under FDA jurisdiction. There also are questions around how cell-based meat product labeling will be regulated.

The consumer-friendly attributes supporting the development of cell-based meats — notably animal welfare and sustainability — are strong and will provide a tailwind for manufacturers. But the road from prototype to viable industry is long and complicated.

It was only a few years ago the topic of cell-generated meat jumped from scientific journals to mainstream news. Approvals will take time, and it will be several more years before scale is achieved and products rise above niche status. But the interest and investment manufacturers have generated demonstrate advances made in the technology and underscore the potential of the category.