AsianScientist (Jul. 19, 2019) – Imagine if you had a kitchen countertop bioreactor that could produce wagyu beef on demand. Better still, you could tweak its chemical constituents—reducing, say, the bad cholesterol—to produce personalized, healthier meat.
This vision may seem fantastical but it is entirely conceivable that today’s industrial-sized bioreactors will follow the miniaturization path of 3D printers, says Dr. Sandhya Sriram, co-founder and CEO of Shiok Meats, a Singapore-headquartered, cell-based meat startup.
Homemade meat is just one plausible outcome of the incipient ‘alt-meat’ disruption of the food industry, which promises to deliver cell-based and plant-based meat to the mass market. Yet, amid concerns about price, safety and taste, it is unclear if alt-meat can ever win over mainstream consumers and change our very conception of meat production—or if it is destined to forever remain a vegan fad.
Asia’s alt-meat renaissance
Asian alt-meat startups are actually the spiritual descendants of ancient gastronomes. Two thousand years ago India’s vegetarian habits diffused to China via Buddhism. Chinese monks subsequently created imitation meat dishes in order to satiate omnivorous monastery guests, according to Fuchsia Dunlop, author of Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes from the Culinary Heart of China.
Tang dynasty (7th-10th Century) records indicate the consumption of imitation pork and mutton dishes, while the subsequent Song dynasty (10th–13th Century) represented a high-water mark of Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. Today, the likes of soy patties and wheat gluten ‘duck’ are commonplace from Chennai to Chiang Mai. For millions of Asians, ‘plant-based meat’ refers not to some newfangled invention but a daily reality.
Yet the seminal difference between yesteryear’s plant-based meats and its latest incarnations is the shift from targeting vegetarians to meat-eaters. Addressing the latter market not only makes commercial sense but is seen by many as the only meaningful way to curb meat consumption’s negative externalities.
Even by the giddy heights of Silicon Valley tech ‘solutionism,’ the assertions from alt-meat advocates can sound quixotic. In one fell swoop, so they claim, alt-meat will mitigate problems with global resource depletion; climate change; species extinction; animal welfare; the proliferation of zoonotic diseases and antimicrobial resistance; human health and nutrition; and oppressive farm and fishing labor conditions. (That’s it?)
The Economist recently highlighted a few global trends that will sustain meat demand: the shift in China from eating pork to beef (which requires more resources); the imminent spike in dairy and meat consumption in many African countries as incomes rise (a boon for nutrition there); and the stabilization of meat consumption in the West, i.e. it’s not falling. If global meat consumption is destined to emulate the West’s, there is much room for growth.
The secret ingredient: heme
In order to attract this demographic to alt-meats, so the argument goes, it is not enough for plant-based meat to simply look the part and supply protein; it must taste like actual meat. Hence modern technologies are employed to mimic actual meat. The Impossible Burger, for instance, uses a plant-based version of heme, the molecule in the hemoglobin protein that, among other things, gives blood its taste.
A recent survey suggests that (urban) consumers in China and India are more receptive to alt-meats than those in the US. “Taste, price and convenience are the main drivers in the United States,” says Ms. Elaine Siu, Asia-Pacific managing director at the Good Food Institute (GFI), a think tank. “In Asia, clean meat will have the added benefit of being a safe protein- and nutrient-dense foodstuff.”
Qishan Foods, a Shenzhen-based firm founded in 1993, is one of a crop of Asian companies striving to nudge its products ever closer to actual meat. For a new plant-based meat sausage, it uses konjac (the Asian plant Amorphophallus konjac) to better mimic the taste and texture of animal fat. Right Treat, a Hong Kong-based startup founded by David Yeung, one of Asia’s most prominent alt-meats champions, has developed a vegan pork mince product called OMN!PORK, which is made of pea, non-GMO soy, shiitake mushroom and rice, and which it claims looks, sizzles and tastes like real pork. Malaysia’s Phuture Team intends to develop plant-based meats for the halal market.
While plant-based meat is somewhat familiar to Asians, cell-based meat is fundamentally new. The technology is an offshoot of pharmaceutical stem-cell research. Isolated stem cells are grown into actual meat by feeding on an antibiotic- and hormone-free nutrient soup (called culture media) in bioreactors. There are currently three Asian start-ups in this space: Tokyo-based Integriculture, which appears to be focusing initially on land animals (in 2017, it prototyped a cultured foie gras made with chicken liver); as well as Shiok Meats and Hong Kong-based Avant Meats, which are both focusing on seafood.
Seafood from a petri dish
In April 2019, when Shiok Meats debuted Cantonese siew mai dumplings made with its cell-based shrimp, it was a significant milestone not only for Asian technology, foods and brands—“Shiok” is Singaporean slang for extreme pleasure—but also for sustainable seafood at large.
In the scramble to replace land-based meats, few alt-meat firms are focusing on seafood, an industry with unique problems such as microplastics-tainted meat as well as severe overfishing—including 20 kilograms of unwanted bycatch for every kilogram of wild shrimp.
With shrimp, lobster and crab meat as initial products, Shiok Meats hopes to win some of the global seafood market valued in 2016 at US$120 billion, almost half of which was in Asia (according to Allied Market Research).
While the early focus has been on the meat itself, the cellular technology can be deployed to recreate any part of the animal, says Dr. Ling Ka Yi, chief scientific officer and co-founder at Shiok Meats. Yet entire animal recreation may have limited appeal, she says. Part of the allure of cell-based meats is its ability to deliver the juicy flesh without the hair, scales and other messy bits that need cleaning.
Shiok Meats was co-founded in 2018 by Ling, a developmental stem cell biologist with over 10 years expertise in tracing and studying stem cells during development, and Sriram, a stem cell scientist with over 10 years of experience working with muscle, adipose cells and stem cells.
Having just secured S$4.6 million in Series A funding, Shiok Meats is the third-best-funded cell-based meat company in the world (after Memphis Meats and Mosa Meat). One major investor is Monde Nissin, a 39-year-old Philippine-based food firm, a sign that forward-thinking Asian incumbents are embracing alt-meat’s disruption (much like Cargill and Tyson Foods in the US). Shiok Meats will deploy this capital towards overcoming several common alt-meat obstacles before it goes to market.
Its biggest challenge is cost. Shiok Meats produced those first eight siew mais for an eye-watering S$5,000. Cell-based meat startups tend to rely on pricey pharmaceutical resources until proof of concept, before reaping potentially vertiginous scale economies. In 2013 Dutch engineers needed US$325,000 to make the world’s first lab-grown burger; by 2015 they could do it for US$11.
Shiok Meats will attempt to cut costs by developing its own proprietary media, says Ling, which will then be produced en masse. “Not at pharmaceutical grade, but at food grade, which is not as stringent.”
It has identified premium restaurants in Hong Kong and Singapore as their beachhead customers, and subsequently expects its frozen deshelled shrimp to be available in Asian supermarkets by 2024, priced initially at a 20–30 percent premium to regular frozen deshelled shrimp.
‘Clean’ versus ‘lab-grown’ meat
For cell-based meat production at large, there is a consensus that it will require drastically less land and water than current methods, but the jury is still out on its energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions, which could be more intensive, some suggest.
Shiok Meats’ expected two-pronged business strategy involves building its own production facilities as well as licensing its patented technology to existing food manufacturers. Shiok Meats is already in early discussions with shrimp farms in Singapore and Thailand. Farmers could thus benefit from the alt-meat disruption in two ways: first, by growing alt-meat’s plant inputs; second, by using these new technologies to de-risk their own meat production—no more worries about typhoons and mad cows.
Shiok Meats may also face regulatory issues around labeling and safety. There is an ongoing tussle in the US around nomenclature. On one side, some industry incumbents object to alt-meats carrying the label ‘meat,’ with any protectionist impulse camouflaged by a seemingly fair critique on consumer information and transparency grounds.
On the other side, alt-meat branding wordsmiths are working overtime to attract skittish consumers, mutating names rapidly: what was once ‘lab-grown meat’ is now ‘cell-based meat,’ ‘cultured meat’ or, preferably, ‘clean meat’—implying, as devotees believe, that traditional, disease-vulnerable meat is dirtier. There are also valid concerns over the safety of techie ‘hack’ foods. In 2016 Soylent, a much ballyhooed meal replacement startup, had to withdraw its algae-derived snack bar and pause sales of a signature powder after some consumers fell sick.
Regulators in Asia, aware of alt-meat’s potential to assuage food security issues, appear eager to smoothen its market entry. “This could easily be another area where Asia leapfrogs the rest of the world,” says Siu at GFI. “Funding research and development and providing regulatory clarity could make this happen.”
Shiok Meats has so far encountered no labeling pushback, says Ling. “They [regulators in Asia] will make sure it’s free of toxins and any pathogens possible. I don’t think consumers have to worry about that.”
Though much of alt-meat’s current entrepreneurial dynamism is in the West—and, to a lesser extent, places like Israel—Shiok Meats believes Asia has the necessary ingredients for it to thrive. It plans to keep Singapore as a base to leverage its reputation for safety and quality. But it wants to expand to another city that can provide what the city-state lacks, says Sriram, including sufficient engineering talent and infrastructure like big food production facilities. “In the US, some of the clean meat companies have adopted an old chocolate factory or an old brewery… we would rather see if we can do this in a country where it’s already available to an extent.”
Meanwhile, given China’s vast capacity in producing and processing plant-based raw materials such as soy and pea isolate, Siu says “China could become the world’s factory once again in plant-based food production.”
The alt-meat market is still tiny. Nielsen assessed it as under one percent of the overall retail meat market in the US in 2018 (global market estimates are much lower). Yet alt-meat evangelists are expecting exponential growth. Siu believes that in 30 years, alt-meat will comprise the majority of our meat supply. Its advance around Asia may be slower than in the US, she says, partly because China and India are much bigger countries, and regional food systems are not as centralized. “In countries where more people farm their own food, clean meat will expand more slowly. But eventually, I expect growing meat directly to replace using animals for meat.”
Whether or not this bullishness is justified remains to be seen. Romantics might decry a future in which traditional hunting, farming and food cultures are subsumed under some alt-meat zeitgeist. Yet whatever happens there will probably always be animals reared humanely via regenerative agriculture for those who want (and can afford) them. Meanwhile, Asians might rejoice if that magical meat machine can pump out not only bluefin tuna belly and suckling pig, but even forgotten foods our ancestors once loved.
Shark’s fin soup, anyone?
This article was first published in the July 2019 print version of Asian Scientist Magazine.
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