For two months, when Dr Uma Valeti was studying medicine at JIPMER in Puducherry, he had to run the college cafeteria with two of his friends. One day, when he went to the market to buy meat, he witnessed for the first time industrialised meat production. He decided then that he would become a vegetarian, even though he hailed from a meat-eating family and had always loved its taste. He ate meat again more than 20 years later. But this time, it was ‘clean meat’ produced in his research space in San Francisco using the stem cells of animals. “I had forgotten how meat tasted,” he says. “Now, I don’t miss it anymore because we are producing it.”
Clean or cultured meat is a revolutionary concept that might, in future, radically change the way you eat. At Memphis Meats, the company that Valeti cofounded in 2015, the meat is produced by identifying high quality animal cells that are self-renewing. Then, the cells are fed nutrients similar to what farm animals consume. The cells ultimately develop into three-dimensional tissues in three to five weeks. This is not as easy as it sounds. Cells are the building blocks of the meat we eat and the company has spent years learning to produce the taste, texture and mouthfeel that consumers expect from conventional meat.
By producing meat in clean and controlled conditions, the highest quality can be maintained at every stage, thus ensuring that it is safe and nutritious. According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meat and poultry are the largest causes of deaths due to food-borne illness. With clean meat, everything that is fed to a cell—sugar, proteins, fats, oxygen and water—can be monitored, which is impossible in industrialised meat production, where there are several points where contamination can be introduced. Clean meat production can also reduce or eliminate the use of antibiotics and growth-promoting hormones, which may have adverse effects on humans. Clean meat can prevent the slaughter of nearly 70 billion animals each year, and drastically reduce wastage of land and water. Meat eating is also responsible for up to 22 per cent of all greenhouse gases. “When you think of it at scale,” says Valeti, “the implications are really good for sustainable development, food safety, food security and environment impact.”
In a way, clean meat was an idea that was waiting to happen in Valeti’s life. When he was 12 years old, he went to a neighbour’s birthday party in Vijayawada, where he grew up. In the front yard, people were feasting on meat dishes, but when he wandered to the back, he saw the cooks slaughtering and cooking the animals. There was celebration of birth on one hand, and the witnessing of death on the other. The contrast, in Valeti’s mind, was sharp. The incident remained in the back of his mind for many years, until he started working with stem cells as a cardiologist in the US. One day, when he was injecting these cells into a patient’s heart to regrow the heart muscle, he started wondering why the stem cells of animals could not be used to produce meat, and thus prevent industrialised slaughter of animals. “I thought to myself: if I practised cardiology for another 30 years, I would be able to save two to three thousand lives,” he says. “On the other hand, if I could bring healthy food to the table, I could impact billions of human and trillions of animal lives.”
Switching from cardiology to entrepreneurship was not easy. He was doing “enormously satisfying work” as a cardiologist and heading programmes in device development, innovation, 3D and 4D imaging. Starting Memphis Meats would uproot everything. Every night, he would discuss the idea at the dinner table with his wife and children, until one day, his children said: ‘Dad, if you don’t do it, who will?’ “That was a defining moment for me,” says Valeti. “My kids are the first kids in the world to taste clean meat. They loved it.” His daughter has made him promise that they will serve clean meat at her graduation. “That’s about five years away,” says Valeti, with a laugh. “So, it is not just investors who are pushing me, but my daughter is, too.” It might not be an unreasonable demand, as Memphis Meats expects to start selling its products in the coming years.
For a boy who grew up in Vijayawada, and whose ambition was to play cricket for the country, Valeti’s life has veered in an unexpected direction. His mother is a Physics teacher, and his father a veterinarian. He decided to study medicine at a young age and got admission to JIPMER. While there, he happened to read Bailey & Love, a book about surgery. A lot of techniques described in it were developed by the Mayo Clinic in the US. Although he topped the postgraduate entrance examination at JIPMER, he gave up his seat to go to the US. Unfortunately, his visa was rejected three times, so he decided he would go to Jamaica, and try again from there after a few months. “It was the best decision I have ever made because otherwise, I would not have met my wife,” he says with a smile. In the beginning, Dr Mrunalini Parvataneni, the ophthalmologist who would later become his wife, blew him off. “She was sitting in a restaurant, and I asked her if I could join her for lunch. She said that of course I could have lunch, but that she was leaving. Then she got up and walked away in front of everyone.” But when one door closes, another opens. A month later, when he was working in orthopaedic surgery, he met her brother who became a good friend. He struck up a friendship with Parvataneni which later blossomed into love.
“It has been one big adventure so far,” says Parvataneni. “It is heartwarming to see how much people want the idea of clean meat to succeed. He [Valeti] had been talking about it for years, so it didn’t really come as a shock when he said he wanted to start the company. I did not want him to look back on life and think that he had an opportunity, but he didn’t take it. This has become bigger than one person. I have tasted the duck and the chicken and was amazed at how similar it tasted [to conventional meat]. That is the moment I decided that this needed to happen.”
Valeti says that whenever he has faced a hurdle in life, it was always his relationships that helped him. When he got rejected to go to the US, it was his parents who lent him the money to buy a one-way ticket to Jamaica. Without those dinner conversations he used to have with his family in Minnesota, he says he wouldn’t have been able to start Memphis Meats. “Every meaningful idea probably started off with conversations like that,” he says.
With the support of his family, he decided to take the plunge. In 2014, he got introduced to Nicholas Genovese, a strong proponent of clean meat and an expert on cell biology, who would later become the chief science officer and co-founder of Memphis Meats. They started working from a small lab at the University of Minnesota. In 2015, Valeti decided that he was not motivated by being in academia and writing research papers about clean meat. He wanted to see the change in the world and reached out to a venture capitalist, who was immediately thrilled with the idea and requested whether Valeti’s team could work out of the San Francisco Bay area. The first two years were a difficult period in his life, when he was flying frequently between Minnesota and San Francisco. He moved his son and daughter to a school in San Francisco and started building a team there, which has grown to more than 30 members.
In 2016, Memphis Meats introduced the world’s first clean meatball, and, the next year, southern fried chicken and duck a l’orange. A few journalists from the Wall Street Journal were invited to taste the meat and the feedback, according to Valeti, was encouraging. By August, the company had raised $22million with a Series A funding round led by investors like the venture capital firms DFJ and Atomico, food industry giant Cargill and billionaires Bill Gates and Richard Branson. Although there are a few competitors working in the field of clean meat, like the Netherlands-based Mosa Meat and the American food manufacturing company Hampton Creek, Valeti is convinced that there is space for everyone in the nascent industry. “We believe in a big tent philosophy where we want to bring everyone—financial investors, meat industry incumbents, and other stakeholders—under the same tent,” he says. “This is a change that everyone would like to see, whether it is the health-conscious consumer, the animal lover or the investor who cares about the economics of it.”
Dr Pradeep Mahajan, an award-winning stem cell therapist and researcher in regenerative medicine at StemRx in Mumbai, says that clean meat is an idea whose time has come. “We are creating an imbalance in nature by killing animals, which can be corrected by producing meat with the stem cells of animals,” he says. “As the tissue is of the same origin, I have no doubt that the same taste can be replicated. As long as regulatory requirements and quality is assured, I see no reason why there should be any harmful long-term effects.”
“Clean meat is an enormous technological shift for humanity, and an opportunity to invest in something so important does not come along often,” said Steve Jurvetson, DFJ Partner. “Investors have been watching this space for years, and Memphis Meats has emerged as the clear leader. It is thrilling to watch the team work, and to try the products, which the entire DFJ team agreed are the real thing. I am so excited for the future that Memphis Meats will create.”
Liz Marshall, a Canadian documentary maker, who is making a film called Meat the Future on Valeti and the clean meat movement, says that she was blown away by the taste of their duck. “I don’t eat meat, but I enjoyed it,” she says. “It was identical [to conventional meat], textured and authentic, not superficial. It tasted salty, chewy, greasy.”
Replicating the taste was one of the easier parts, says Valeti. They did not have to create new flavours because it is real meat that they are producing, so it behaves just like meat when you put it on a grill and cook it.
“We have done hundreds of tastings, and the reaction we get is the same: our meat is delicious, and meat eaters immediately recognise it for what it is,” says Eric Schulze, VP of product and regulation at Memphis Meats. “In fact, one of the top chefs at Cargill—one of the largest meat companies in the world—tasted our duck and said it was some of the best he had ever had. Based on the feedback so far, we are confident our products will taste as good, if not better, than conventionally-produced meat.”
Their bigger headache is figuring out how to bring down the cost. Initially, the lab-produced meat cost around $18,000 per pound; since then, it has been significantly reduced (currently $2,400). Valeti says he expects their first products to be premium priced, but that clean meat products will ultimately compete with conventional products on price. The meat industry, he says, is one of the most subsidised industries in the world. But this is going to be a problem in future because the demand for meat is going to double by 2050. To supply that demand, the governments will have to subsidise the price even more, which will lead to billions of dollars of loss. “So, I think that there is a big opportunity for us to show that we can certainly meet the increasing demand without rationing meat or requiring subsidies,” says Valeti.
According to Steve Myrick, VP of Operations at Memphis Meats, supply and demand work in the company’s favour. “People love meat, but as global population and appetite for meat increases in the coming decades, we are going to run out of resources to make meat via livestock,” he says. “In order to feed the world, we need more efficient ways to produce meat. We truly believe that a major advantage of our product is that we are not asking consumers to change their preferences. We aim to satisfy those preferences in a sustainable and scalable way.”
But changing the existing habits of people is the future of food, according to some in the industry. From eating “seven-ounce corn-fed steak with a small side of vegetables” to shifting to the farm-to-table movement, with organic vegetables and steak that is grass-fed, the American diet has mutated, writes Dan Barber in his book The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food. But, in future, he envisions a different kind of plate: “In place of a hulking piece of protein, I imagined a carrot steak dominating the plate, with a sauce of braised second cuts of beef,” he writes. According to him, we need to “grow nature,” instead of trying to manipulate it into producing what we want it to produce.
Is producing clean meat a kind of tampering with nature? After all, our obsession with meat goes back to 2.5 million years, and is intricately linked with our “genes, culture, history, the power of the meat industry, and the policies of our governments,” as Marta Zaraska writes in her book Meathooked. Can producing meat in a lab really be the way nature intended us to eat it? “Well, nature never intended animals to be intensely confined in crowded facilities and [artificially] made to grow large in a few weeks,” says Valeti. “And going back to doing things the way they were done in the past is not the solution. Regulating what people can eat, and how much they can eat, is an unwinnable situation. We recognise the importance of giving people the choice [to eat what they like]. If you love eating meat, we are not asking you to stop. But we are asking you to try eating meat produced in a different way.”
There are, of course, those in the food industry who are not fully sold on the idea of clean meat. “I’m not sure whether clean meat is correct or not, but this is a larger debate we need to have,” says Manish Mehrotra, the award-winning chef of the restaurant Indian Accent in Delhi. “It’s like when the first test-tube baby was born, there was a huge debate about whether it was ethical or not. In the same way, clean meat, too, might, in time, be accepted. But if you ask me whether I would use it in my kitchen, at this point of time, I would say no.”
Valeti says that, in a way, he is ushering in the future. “Two hundred years ago, could anyone have conceived a future in which food came in packaged boxes in grocery stores?” asks Valeti. “Could anyone have conceived of [preserving] food in refrigerators instead of transporting ice from mountains? Thirty or fifty years from now, people will look back and be shocked that as humans, we were raising 70 to 150 billion animals a year to feed ourselves.”
He imagines a time when food can be more personalised. “What if we could introduce the types of cells that are beneficial to us?” he asks. “What if we could decrease or increase the types of fat? The future is incredibly exciting.”