Audio Posts

Lab-grown caviar and foie gras could be biotech’s newest goldmine, industry experts say: ‘Being ethical is the new luxury’

Lab-grown caviarLab-grown caviar by Caviar Biotec, an arm of the UK company Exmoor Caviar.

Courtesy of Caviar Biotec

  • Many companies are racing to stock lab-grown meat in supermarkets, but it’s an expensive endeavor.
  • Some entrepreneurs see more potential in lab-grown luxury products, where you can charge a premium.
  • Vow Food went so far as to create a lab-grown protein called Morsel, which costs $300 a pound.

The race is on to be the first company to sell lab-grown meat in a supermarket: Israel’s SuperMeat is working on lab-grown poultry, as is Upside Foods in Tennessee. A rival Israeli firm, Aleph Farms, has doubled down on cell-cultured steak, and Finless Foods in California is working on animal-free tuna.

They all promise to bring cruelty-free protein to the table in the next few years. Yet each futuristic firm is following the same strategy that’s likely to stumble for one crucial reason: money.

The economics of creating lab-grown meat makes mass-market products unviable: Put simply, it’s too pricey for even the pickiest eco-minded consumer when compared with its natural counterpart. 

As a result, some industry experts told Insider they saw more potential in a different market: premium products like caviar or foie gras that can sell at a hefty price without consumers batting an eyelash.

“It’s obvious to me that we need to create something that’s small volume and high value if we want to achieve profitability out of the gate,” Isha Datar, the executive director of New Harvest, a nonprofit focused on the cultured-meat industry, said.

A woman with glasses smilingIsha Datar says there’s more potential for lab-grown proteins in the luxury sector.

Diana Levine

Lab-grown protein can have significant environmental benefits. One recent study from the University of Oxford found that the production of lab-grown meat could offer 96% lower greenhouse-gas emissions, as well as cut water and land use to 4 and 1%, respectively, of what conventional farming requires.

Demand for an alternative to animal meat is high as well — McKinsey predicted the market would swell to a $25 billion industry worldwide by the end of this decade, and the Food and Drug Administration approved it for human consumption stateside right at the end of last year.

Ken Benning is one entrepreneur hoping to find the perfect blend of profitability and sustainability in the lab-grown market. As the CEO of the UK’s Exmoor Caviar, a favorite of the British royal family, he has plans to introduce an entirely new product under the brand Caviar Biotec: lab-grown caviar.

“We are replicating eggs at scale,” Benning told Insider. “If you can produce the same thing, it tastes good, and it’s sustainable, it’s a no-brainer.”

A man wKen Benning is the CEO behind Caviar Biotec.

Jemima Benning

His argument, much like Datar’s, is that consumers have limits to what they’ll spend on everyday food items like beef but are likely willing to shell out more for a luxury item like caviar.

“If it’s costing you £50 per burger, they’re just not buying it,” he said. “But our modeling for what we’re doing starts out, from the get-go, with a very large buffer for margin.”

Benning said he wasn’t trying to radically undercut the farm price of his animal roe — he’s hoping to charge between $136 and $272 a pound, which is cheaper than the conventional product but far from a bargain.

“We will maintain the price, and so the perceived value,” he said. “We’re more driven by the ethical value of the product because nowadays being ethical is the new luxury. Our goal isn’t to produce cheap caviar.”

LabThe Vow Food lab, where Morsel — a new kind of lab-grown protein — is made.

Cameron Ramsay

Other firms are focusing on the luxe niche for similar reasons. France’s Gourmey is working on a lab-grown counterpart to foie gras and intends to grow liver in the lab harvested from duck stem cells to replace the traditional force-feeding method. London’s Primeval Foods is focused on cultivating meats that would otherwise be off-limits for conservation reasons — think lion, tiger, and panther. And Pearlita in Raleigh, North Carolina, is focused on oysters. (Datar said the startup had received pushback since the creatures it’s replacing are naturally regenerative, rather than resource-intensive, like cows and many mammals are.)

A man smiling Vow FoodGeorge Peppou, the founder of Vow Food, which is creating lab-grown protein.

Cameron Ramsay

The Vow Food founder George Peppou has taken lab-grown food a step further by trying to create an entirely new product. His argument is that when there’s no real-life equivalent, you can set your own prices.

Morsel, as it’s called, is a protein that’s a unique hybrid of two animals (he declined to say which, citing a pending patent).

“But what I will say is you get the wonderful umami roast meaty flavors as well as the lovely, light, buttery aromatic flavor from seafood,” he said.

To come up with just the right flavor, he turned to chefs who emphasized a good mouthfeel and the ability to use 100% of the product (in other words, not needing to trim off fat or bone). Morsel, Peppou said, fulfills all these requirements. 

A dish of foodVow Food’s Morsel featured in an onion ring with broth.

Anil Riard

Morsel will debut in Singapore soon at a price of about $300 a pound — a price comparable to uni, or sea-urchin roe, he said. It’s the perfect proving ground, Peppou said, given the country’s 4-year-old 30 by 30 sustainable-food initiative, where it committed to produce 30% of its food needed by 2030 — a tough goal in as dense and as small a country, with scant conventional farmland, as Singapore.

“We’re using cultured-meat technology to make meat that is better than what animals could produce,” Peppou said. “It’s about having your cake and eating it, too — it’s delicious and enjoyable but also nutritious and sustainable at the same time.”

Read the original article on Business Insider