Rethinking meat: A leader in the cultivated meat industry envisions the future

Josh Tetrick, cofounder and CEO of cultivated-meat company Eat Just, Inc., sat down with McKinsey partner Joshua Katz for a wide-ranging conversation about his company, how to scale the cultivated-meat industry, and why he thinks cultivated meat has an important role to play in the sustainability of the global food system.

McKinsey: In December, a cultivated-meat product—your chicken—was served to diners for the first time at a restaurant in Singapore. What did those consumers and others who have tasted it say about it?

Rethinking meat: A leader in the cultivated meat industry envisions the future
Eat Just’s chicken is designed to look, taste, and feel just like conventionally-raised chicken.
Rethinking meat: A leader in the cultivated meat industry envisions the future

Josh Tetrick: Seventy percent-plus of people who have bought and tried it said it tastes as good or better than chicken. Eighty-eight percent of those people who purchased it said that they could imagine a world in which this was the only chicken that they were eating. More broadly, we see a significant opportunity with restaurants, where you might have a conventional meat, a plant-based option, and a cultivated meat on the menu. But we think there’s a pathway to be the only meat on the menu, too.

McKinsey: Do you really think that kind of radical change could happen soon?

Josh Tetrick: Stepping back, there are things that feel difficult to imagine in the present day that later become the normal thing, and it can happen more quickly than we realize. I was talking to a friend who was one of the early forerunners of streaming music. He told me that in 2001, a poll found that 3 percent of American consumers could imagine a world in which they would stream as opposed to owning their music. Today, I think 80 percent of the music listened to in the United States is streamed. In 1963, there was an article about how phones one day will be in our pockets. We all know how that turned out.

You know, 15 or 20 years ago, some of the big car companies were pushing back a bit against the transition to electric cars. More recently, some have said they will only be making electric cars. A jewelry company recently announced that it’s moving away from mined diamonds and entirely toward lab-made diamonds.

All of these things seem strange when we’re right in it. It seemed odd to imagine we could be streaming music. It seemed strange to imagine that an electric car could be faster than a gasoline-powered car. It seemed odd that you might want a lab-made diamond as opposed to a mined diamond.

And maybe it seems strange that all the meat that we’ll consume won’t require that a single animal be slaughtered.

McKinsey: What’s it going to take to produce a whole array of great proteins that are broadly available?

Josh Tetrick: It may sound obvious, but the most important thing that we need to do to scale this is to make more. We’ve got to move from 1,200-liters scale to hundreds-of-thousands-of-liters scale, not just produced in Singapore, but also in the US, in Europe, and in China.

Rethinking meat: A leader in the cultivated meat industry envisions the future
Eat Just fried chicken like this was served to consumers for the first time in December in Singapore, the first country to provide regulatory approval.
Rethinking meat: A leader in the cultivated meat industry envisions the future

Our basic research and development work on chicken applies pretty cleanly to beef, pork, and seafood. But it’s really the infrastructure—namely the bioreactors—that is the core unit of operation necessary to make more of it.

Part of the challenge is there’s not a company that we can go to and say, “We would like to get one of your hundred-thousand-liter bioreactors.” They have to be built from scratch. So we can’t just plug in; we have to build it. That takes capital. It takes time.

I would say the second-most-important thing that we need to do to make different kinds of cultivated meat for more people is to continue to improve how we communicate this to consumers.

We shouldn’t take this as a given—that just because we believe this is a better way of making meat safer, healthier, and more sustainable that every consumer is also going to think that. We need to directly address their concerns.

In our research, we’ve seen that there’s a concern about the word “cell,” there’s a concern about the process, there’s a concern about the idea that this might be genetically engineered, and what does that mean for my own health, for the environment? So as a part of our communication process, we need to directly address these issues.

McKinsey: What needs to happen to lower the cost so that cultivated products are competitive with conventional?

Josh Tetrick: The objective here is to get below the cost of conventional animal protein. That’s the whole point of this. If you’re not below the cost, ultimately, you’re not going to be the meat. You can be a portion of it. You can be a nice option on a menu. But you’re not going to be the dominant meat.

So we see a path in the next ten years to get at or below the cost of chicken—which is one of the lowest-cost proteins—which will then put us in a position where we’re below the cost of beef and below the cost of pork.

We see a path in the next ten years to get at or below the cost of chicken, which is one of the lowest-cost proteins.

The most important thing we need to do to get there is to make more. And just like in any industry, if we were in the yogurt business and we were only making ten yogurt cups a day, well, costs would be really high. If we’re in the electric-car business and we were only making 100 cars a week, our costs would be high.

So we’ve got to make more, through larger and larger vessels. The second element related to cost reduction is the cost of the media and the cost of the nutrients the cells consume, which isn’t that different from the role of feed in conventional animal production. Feed is typically more than 40 percent of the cost of chicken, pork, or beef. The nutrients and the media cost are also significant components of our cost structure. And then the third is cell density.

McKinsey: What are the potential benefits—to individual health and the health of the planet—of expanding the cultivated-meat industry?

Josh Tetrick: Does it really make sense to increasingly use larger and larger percentages of the earth for the sole activity of planting soy and corn to feed animals that we end up consuming? It seems like preserving biodiversity, the rain forests, and the carbon-sink element they offer might be better choices.

Rethinking meat: A leader in the cultivated meat industry envisions the future
The company’s chicken in a dumpling wrapper. The goal is to create cultivated meat products that can be used in all the same ways as conventional product.
Rethinking meat: A leader in the cultivated meat industry envisions the future

We’re also really concerned about the rise of zoonotic disease. COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, which is an overly complicated way of saying a disease that spills over from a nonhuman animal, like a bat or a chicken, to a human animal, because of things that we do.

We also see significant impacts in terms of our ability to mitigate the progression of climate change. Climate-changing emissions come from the animals we eat, as well as the transportation sources that we end up utilizing.

From a human-health perspective, cultivated meat doesn’t pose the same risks of microbial infection that conventional meat does, and it doesn’t require antibiotics. In the future, as we explore new technologies, you can imagine cultivated meat not with the same amount of saturated fat or the same amount of LDL cholesterol but even with reduced amounts. Right now, we’ve led with a non-GMO approach, but there are interesting approaches utilizing gene editing where you can create even healthier products.

McKinsey: How are you thinking of working with established players in the food industry?

Josh Tetrick: We are developing a business model where we focus on the upstream production, the primary research and development in the brand. And then we’ll partner with meat companies to do some of the final conversion, warehousing and distribution, and marketing.

And that’s how, ultimately, I see this being the most effective approach. We want to focus on what we’re really good at. Meat companies are particularly good at cold-chain distribution into retail and into food service, and the conversion of a raw material into a number of finished products, and we see that relationship working out really well for us and for them.

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