Eat Just's Josh Tetrick On How "Lab-Grown" Meat Could Prevent The Next Pandemic
In December 2020, Singapore became the first government in the world to grant approval of the sale of cultured meat—meat produced by in vitro cell culture of animal cells.
"Chicken bites" produced by San Francisco-based food company Eat Just are now on the menu in the city-state, with other countries worldwide expected to follow suit soon.
According to Josh Tetrick, the co-founder and CEO of Eat Just, the approval process took two years in total. Within a few weeks of getting the green light, Eat Just's Good Meat Cultured Chicken, made from animal cells without having to slaughter an animal, saw its first client in Singapore private members’ club, 1880.
Eat Just is a key player in the global billion-dollar alternative protein industry, with US$200 million in fresh funds which it secured in a recent fundraising round. Entrepreneurs in the space say they are driven by the determination to reverse the negative impacts of the traditional meat industry on animals, farmers and the planet. When Tetrick started the company with his co-founder, Josh Balk, in 2011, they focused on tackling the most consumed animal protein in the world: chicken eggs.
Under the Just Egg brand, the pair developed a non-GMO, cholesterol-free alternative to scrambled eggs using mung bean. Since launching in the US in 2019, the number of Just Egg bottles sold is equivalent to some 80 million chicken eggs.
According to Eat Just’s Impact Report 2020, this translates into several positive impacts on the environment, such as saving 1.48 billion gallons of water and 2,435 acres of land that would have been used to rear chickens, and a reduction of nearly 6 million kilograms in carbon emissions.
With the history-making regulatory approval of its cultured chicken in Singapore, Tetrick is making the country Eat Just's Asian hub, and possibly home to its global manufacturing hub in the future.
The American entrepreneur discusses Asia’s appetite for cultured meat, the common misconceptions surrounding the product, and how cultured meat could help prevent the next pandemic.
What brought Eat Just to Singapore two years ago?
We came to Singapore for two things: we wanted to do an experiment for our Just Egg brand to get a sense of what the Singaporean consumer thought about plant-based food and better approaches to eating. We also applied for regulatory approval for our cultured chicken at around that time.
What we found was that Singapore is not only an ideal place for us to base our manufacturing hub for egg and meat, the Singaporean consumer is also extremely open-minded about eating better, eating to create a more liveable planet and eating in a way that aligns with their own values.
What’s your relationship with food like?
Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, I ate a lot of fried chicken. So while food is about the production, process and technology, it’s also about the culture, emotions and stories. There’s a real story about how our food system got to where it is now. In the past, our food system was more reflective of our values but now, we’ve taken the wild out of our animals.
If you can believe it, one-third of arable land on our planet is dedicated to nothing but planting field after field of animal feed like corn and soybeans. It’s such a bizarre, irrational, unfair, unsustainable way to utilise the only planet that we have. We don’t have to have a world that looks like that.
How big of a milestone is this first regulatory approval?
For the longest time, people thought about cultured meat as science fiction, as something that might materialise in some distant future. It’s been talked about as being "lab-grown", and this label was accurate until we came around and Singapore gave our meat clearance. Before all this, it was indeed only grown and consumed in a laboratory.
The regulatory approval is such a significant milestone for the industry because now our chicken can be stored in a walk-in freezer in a restaurant in Singapore, rather than in a lab. It can be manufactured in a larger manufacturing environment, rather than in a lab. It is now going to be consumed by Singaporeans visiting a restaurant with their friends and family, instead of only by me and my scientists, in a lab. It represents a mindset shift from what we thought would happen maybe in 50 years time to it is happening now.
See also: The Rise Of The Responsible Consumer
There are so many terms besides cultured meat that are being used in the market. Are you fussed about this and do you have a preference for any one term?
So one thing first: I think by the time our young children go to university, cultured meat is just going to be called “meat”. It is the same as the smartphone, which we now simply say is a phone. When a product is normalised in society, the novel label it once carried tends to disappear.
Until we reach that point with cultured meat, however, some labels are regulatory necessities. The Singapore Food Agency, for example, does require us to use the word “cultured” as a way of being transparent about our production process.
Other terms I think are appropriate, outside of the regulatory context, are "no-kill meat" and "slaughter-free meat", both of which describe exactly what this type of meat really is.
For the longest time, people thought about cultured meat as science fiction, that it will only come true in 50 years. But the fact is you can go eat it right now
— Josh Tetrick
What is the production process of cultured meat like?
We first obtain the animal cells and use different techniques to do so, including obtaining the cells from a cell-culture bag, a biopsy of a live animal or a fresh piece of meat.
After getting the cells, we identify a combination of nutrients to feed them. If you think about a chicken or a cow, they consume different feeds that contain nutrients that enable the build-up of muscles and fat in their bodies. We need to do the same thing but without the live animal. So we identify nutrients, which are called media, in order to feed the cells that we work with.
The third major step is to move the cell to a larger steel vessel, similar to how beer is being brewed in a microbrewery. This is when the cells multiply and meat is being manufactured, and all this happens in a clean, sanitary environment.
One of the major benefits of cultured meat is said to be that it reduces the risk of zoonotic outbreaks. In this sense, your chicken is directly answering one of the biggest fears that the coronavirus has triggered—infectious diseases being transmitted from non-humans to humans.
That’s right. Zoonotic diseases such as the coronavirus don’t happen by accident. They happen because of what we do. These include cramming animals into tiny spaces, disrupting natural habitats and stacking cages on top of each other in wet markets.
One of the biggest advantages of our approach of producing meat is it mitigates the probability of zoonotic disease outbreaks entirely because the [poor] conditions that allow them to emerge are no longer there.
My fixation is ensuring that by the time my two-year-old niece enters high school, the vast majority of chicken, beef or pork won't require killing a single animal
— Josh Tetrick
What are some misconceptions about cultured meat you’d like to debunk?
Misconception number one: cultured meat is science fiction and will only appear in reality in 50 years time. The fact is you can go eat it right now, and I hope other companies follow our lead.
Number two: cultured meat is genetically modified. The fact is we don’t genetically modify or engineer our meat at all.
Number three: cultured meat will never be at the cost of conventional meat. The fact is any new category is going to be expensive at first because you haven’t yet got a large enough production scale. But as you begin to make more of it, the cost comes down and eventually, I believe our cultured meat will be at a lower cost than conventional meat.
Finally, there's a misconception that the cultured meat industry will harm farmers in the traditional meat industry. The fact is these farmers can reorient themselves around this new kind of production. For example, we work with a group of Wagyu beef farmers in Japan to produce a cultured Wagyu beef product. And when the beef hits the market, they will receive a percentage of the royalties. We also have conventional meat partners in Germany, Thailand and South Korea.
At the end of the day, the biggest meat companies want to make money by selling meat. Their interest lies in being able to efficiently sell proteins to human beings and earn a profit doing so. And if there is a more effective way for them to do so, they will absolutely do it.
See also: F&B Entrepreneur Gan Guoyi On Keeping Her Business And Industry Afloat In This Crisis
There is an argument that cultured meat may have a more damaging environmental impact than meat in the long run, due in part to the energy costs of the infrastructure needed for cell culture. What's your response?
I did see a study about this and I think it may have been funded by some of the existing agricultural groups. For us, we look at other studies that show how cultured meat uses 90 to 95 percent less water than conventional meat.
The truth of the matter is that the best studies will be when this technology is scaled to many hundreds of millions of pounds. But even before the market reaches that stage, a comparison between the basic energy inputs of the conventional and cultured meat industries would show that the latter approach is significantly less carbon-intensive.
What's next for Eat Just?
We’re looking for Singapore to be our hub for Asia. It may potentially be our global manufacturing hub as well, but we’re still assessing this.
In terms of product launches, we’d like to launch chicken breasts in Singapore next, followed by ground beef. All of this will, of course, need to be approved first before they can be sold.
What does the future look like to you?
I think if you look at where the cost is going, cultured meat is going to have a lower cost than conventional meat. It’ll continue to taste as good, if not better, in the future. You're also going to have significantly less food safety issues as the industry develops. And maybe the most important of all, you're going to have more and more human beings seeing what they're putting in their body and what it means to their health.
And because of all that, my fixation is ensuring that by the time that my two-year-old niece enters high school, the vast majority of chicken, beef or pork won't require killing a single animal.
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