What is Clean Meat? An Interview with Alex Shirazi – Host of the Cultured Meat and Future Food Podcast

Avatar

By: Alexander J. Taylor

Good morning Alex! Thanks for joining me in this interview for Science Meets Food.  First off, would you mind telling me a bit about yourself – your name, your occupation, and how about your favorite dish to make on a weeknight?

A:  Yeah, okay, this is a fun one!

My name is Alex Shirazi, I am the host of a podcast by the name of “Cultured Meat and Future Food” and a co-organizer of an event called the Cultured Meat Symposium, which is a conference dedicated to cell-cultured meat, poultry, and seafood.

Traditionally, I am a software-user experience designer, so I have a background in advertising and design.  But I learned about cultured meat and that’s how I have gotten into it.

My favorite dish to make… Well, this is very tough.  But the first one that came to mind is a “Vegan Lasagna.” 

 

So our topic today is about culturing meat, cellular meat, in vitro meat, or “clean meat.”  How would you define these terms and which one, for yourself, is the more preferred term?

A: Yeah, so in this kind of category, there are really two… Actually three players, in this space.

Industry bodies that want a particular term.  So first is the term ‘cell-based’ meat and this term comes from North American Meat Institute [NAMI] partnering with Memphis Meats for a letter to the USDA, FDA, and the President.  And they came up with the term ‘cell-based meats’ as a way to regulate it.

A lot of people have an argument for this.

The second term, or industry body that is governing terms, is the Alliance for Meat, Poultry, and Seafood Innovation.

So they go by AMPS, and AMPS is an alliance in the traditional sense of fees to join the alliance, as a cultured meat company, and they do a little bit of lobbying for getting cultured meat to the world.  They accept terms such as ‘cell-cultured meat’, ‘cultured meat’, and ‘cell-based meat’ and they do not identify with ‘clean meat’, ‘synthetic meat’, or ‘artificial meat’. That’s kind of like the second body, industry body.  

The third is, I guess, the Good Food Institute [GFI] and they originally started using ‘clean meat’.

The GFI has ties to animal welfare organizations and has focused on mercy for animals.  So it’s, at its core, been an “animal rights come first,” but they may be animal welfare or animal rights.  They introduced the term ‘clean meat’ and I think ‘clean meat’ is so obviously… one-sided, that’s why Memphis Meats and NAMI came out with cell-based meats, ‘cause they wanted to do away with ‘clean meat’.  After then, ‘clean meat’ started not doing so well, so GFI partnered with Mattson and [started using] the term ‘cultivated meat’.

So these are the three industry bodies:  Memphis Meats + NAMI, AMPS (which Memphis Meats is part of), and GFI.

When we, of the podcast and symposium, refer to the technology, we tend to use the term that is most widely, initially searched for, which is actually ‘artificial meat’.  So ‘artificial meat’ or ‘synthetic meat’, if no one knows the cell-cultured or clean meat, they think artificial or synthetic. The term ‘fake meat’ is too general, for plant-based or cell-based, so ‘artificial’ or ‘synthetic’ is referring to cultured.  We also use ‘cultured meat’, to talk about or to the industry, but outside of that we will use ‘cultivated meat’.

As a side note, Paul Shapiro has a really good book, “Clean Meat,” which makes a really good example about ice.

When ice was first manufactured, it was actually called ‘artificial ice’ and people worried about whether it would be safe to consume or not.

 

That is amazingly interesting!  There are so many terms for, in theory, the same type of products based on the reaction to certain words or verbiage.  Could you give us a bit of history about clean meat? When and how did it start? How did you get involved in the clean meat industry?

A: We created a timeline for New Harvest and it actually starts with a quote from Winston Churchill in 1932.  “Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”

This was published in a popular science magazine and it was the entry quote to every cultured meat presentation.  It didn’t start ramping up until Willem van Eelen (and he didn’t have a scientific background) heard about the technology and went out to find people to work on this technology.  His passion to bring it forward kickstarted the industry and that is why cultured meat is so heavily based in the Netherlands. Now, his daughter, Ira van Eelen, is actually starting to continue his legacy and is a big advocate for cultured meat.

But anyway, then we have, in 2004, New Harvest being founded.  New Harvest is an organization all about cell agriculture and is trying to get grants and raise awareness.  Shortly after, cell-ag companies have popped up like Memphis Meats and Modern Meadow. So that’s kinda like the history of cultured meat and where it is now, but I got into it through the Cultured Meat Symposium.

It’s hosted by about 5 or 6 others, and we had been getting together and working on a bunch of different projects.  One of the days we were meeting, which could have been tech projects like DIY-sous vide machines or CrocPots… but one of the sessions, my girlfriend, who is vegan, attended and mentioned cultured meat.

One of the others, Cyrus, said that he had heard of it and that’s what got us to decide to start a cultured meat company.  However, we didn’t know too many players, so we thought of starting a podcast to understand the landscape. So we reached out to a couple of folks, some of the high profile folks in the industry, and they were really excited. The response rate we got was really exciting, so it really drove us forward.

Alex’s podcast, Cultured Meat and Future Food

 

You also run a podcast called the Clean Meat Podcast, and that’s actually how we connected.  What is it like hosting a podcast on food science-based topics? Have you had any struggles or issues?  What has been the high point, so far, for the podcast?

A:  So in the design world, I host events about design, but a lot of people would tell me they had imposter syndrome…they were somewhere where you might not have the amount of confidence some of the people in the room have; they have 10+ years on me and I have experience at like a school or a bootcamp.

Using that feedback, we went into the podcast making it to be “I am no expert, I do not have a science background at all,” so we use that as a focal point of the podcast.  Even the description now is a short-form podcast talking about cultured meat for an audience of a non-scientific background.

That way, a non-science background person, [me], asks all the stupid questions, so you don’t have to!  The podcast helps to come at it with an honest approach.

Now, I talked about imposter syndrome; I was doing the podcast for a year and didn’t feel this at all.  Until this point where there was a meeting in D.C., the joint USDA-FDA hearing, where they would open to the public could come and talk about the topic.  I booked a ticket, flew out to D.C., slept at my cousin’s for two hours, went to the USDA building in D.C. and started hearing these, generations, of knowledge…

And here I am, with a notebook, and it hits me:  What the hell am I doing here? I started this podcast, we are hosting these meetups, but like do I… Can I even go up there?  But for the podcast, we lay the cards out on the table and I realize this is an open forum and I should speak for others that are like me.

[People] who don’t have a scientific background, that might not be in the [food science] world.  But I pretty much went up there and said that this is a technology and needs to be regulated, but it needs to be looked at seriously.  To show there are two sides to the story of traditional farming folks and then an animal rights/welfare background.

I tried to offer a middle ground between the two.

 

What has been the progress for the cultivated meat industry so far?  I know there was a lot of hype when the cell-based steak or the cell-based chicken came out.

A:  The biggest news right now, is Memphis Meats has raised $161 million for a pilot plant to test out an ability of scale, which is huge.  We have seen other companies showcase potential designs or 3D maps, but Memphis Meats raising $161 million shows that not only is this something that could soon become reality, but it shows that there are, now, big financial players in the game as well.

[I think that] before the success of Beyond Meat in the stock market, [which] brought a lot of attention to cultured meat, there were a lot of skeptics in the room. With this new investment, a lot of skeptics have turned into… wanna-be investors! Now a lot of people want to get in the game.  From a technology side, scaling up is very good.

Financially, that is also very good.

We are tracking about 60 cultured meat companies, but by the end of this year, we think we will easily hit 100.  A lot of scientists and researchers are finishing or leaving their programs to work on cultured meat programs, which is a very exciting thing to do.  Over the last few years, a lot of people want to be CEOs of their own company in food tech/biotech because of that, and that’s a very good thing for the industry for creative efforts in new products.

For example, RxBar was just bought for $600 million, which inspired a lot of people to create [snack] bars, because of the value in the industry.

 

What would you say is the future of clean meat in terms of this year, three years, and then at the start of the next decade?

A: There is a lot of talk of cultured meat coming to market soon, but personally I think we will mainly only see a limited rollout.

That means one of these companies will work with a high-end restaurant to have a very limited number of seats, in a limited time of the year.  So that’s what I think we will see for 2020-2023. And that will give the people the opportunity to try it. Now for 2023+, we will start seeing more partnerships between cultured meat companies and large food companies, like ingredient companies. There’s a lot of applications for cultured meat beyond traditional meat.  Instead of steak or ground meat, there are new types of ingredients, such as for flavorings, for seasonings, etc. Not just traditional ones from a butcher.

I think in 2023-2030 [we will see] these partnerships and maybe some products that come out of it.  Maybe even at the end of the 2020’s, there may be a wider option to buy these in stores. But I also speak to a lot of scientists that say that “we will never get to a point where we can be close to price parity;” and they use the biofuel industry as an example, such that there is a cap on efficiency.

Realistically, these price parity models haven’t been able to meet the models we have put, so these pilot plant tests are incredibly important. 

I’ve even heard of cell-cultured duck meat foie gras to be coming out by the end of 2021.  It wouldn’t be 100% cultured, but mainly on a mixture of the two, of traditional and cell-cultured. 

 

What are some concerns that general consumers have against cultured meat?  Have there been a lot of recent peer-reviewed studies on cultured meat recently? 

A:  I would say that it’s still too early.

A lot of the publications are on research and development.  There isn’t much being done on the health factors of consuming cultured meat.  There are a couple of researchers [out of the UK] Chris Bryant, and Neil Stephens, a sociologist looking at consumer [acceptance], whether consumers will be open to adopting these technologies, [but it’s still super early].  

 

On a typical scale, how long does it take to make a “batch” of cultured meat and how much would it cost at market?

A:  [Typically,] it takes around a couple of weeks.

It might take a couple of weeks for a cultured meat sausage, which is around $200-300 per sausage.  A burger will be down to $25 for a single burger in the next few years. But again, what is a burger? What percent will be cultured or plant-based or traditional?

Hopefully, we can find a branch between the two. 

 

What are some things that you wish to tell the general consumers?

A: I was touring a lab once and the researcher said “I used to work on cancer research, but there are so many people working on cancer research. So I thought it’d be really cool to work on this technology and could potentially save billions of lives.”

I had to stop for a second there. Over 10 years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer and am now a cancer survivor, so there’s this person telling me “Oh yeah, there’s a lot of people doing research, so I’m going to save animal lives instead,” and that was… interesting to say the least.

But I would like to mention to folks in food science, we are in a very exciting time, in an entrepreneurship standpoint.  That we have so many different abilities to get the word out, test products, and even find investors.

So I guess anybody in the food science world thinking you need a couple of years of experience, there is nothing more valuable than trying your own thing right away.  I, myself, not being in food science have been experimenting with my own type of products I can create. I [am now] safe certified, I’m going to commercial kitchens and experimenting with stuff. So I think the folks in food science just need to go out there and execute on it because now is the best time.  

Each one of our podcasts, I ask why it is such a good time or what advice you have and they say it all boils down to, if you have an idea, just go and execute it.    

 

If someone wanted more resources about cultured meat, its production, and/or where to buy it, where would they go?

A: The best resource, for me, has been New Harvest, it’s a non-profit organization based out of NYC that have really nice graphics that explain how cultured meat works, and they do a really good job of laying out the facts. And they cover everything cell ag, there was an article of cell ag breast milk and biomaterials, leathers and spider silk.

So New Harvest is the best, one hundred percent.  

 

Thanks for your time Alex!  Where can our readers find you?

A:  Yeah!  So the podcast is Future Food Podcast, that website needs some love, but the Cultured Meat Symposium [can be found] at our Twitter or our Eventbrite, that’s where you can find out more about me, the symposium, and any future news!  

 

If you want to learn more about cultured meat, check out these videos:

Is cell-cultured meat ready for the mainstream? 

Tasting the World’s First Test-Tube Steak


A.J. Taylor

A.J. Taylor | Linkedin

SMF Blog Writer

A.J. earned his degree in Biochemistry from Judson University and his Master’s in Food Science and Human Nutrition from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  His research then focused on Listeria monocytogenes, but has now transitioned into a Ph.D. program at UIUC in the hopes to discover more about the cocoa bean fermentation process using genomic, bioinformatic, and biochemical tools to define chocolate flavor from start to finish.  A.J. emphasizes on the importance of science communication and loves to discuss multiple topics in the Food Science realm.  A.J. is also an avid gamer from board games to video games, as well as a podcast-lover, if you have any recommendations, he is all ears!

Avatar
Science Meets Food

The IFT Student Association (IFTSA) is a forward-looking, student-governed community of IFT members. Through competitions, scholarships, networking, and leadership opportunities, you’ll set yourself apart from your classmates (unless they’re members too).

Leave a Reply