How much money can be made from plant-based and lab-grown meat? B.C. entrepreneurs are raising the steaks

3D beef printers are the new reality for the province's plant-based food industry.

Credit: Tanya Goehring

Wamame Foods’ plant-based Wagyu beef

Old MacDonald had a farm. New MacDonald has a laboratory, an extruder, a 3D beef printer and the backing of venture capital. 

A B.C.-based investment firm called Cult Food Science is investing in companies developing cultured meat alternatives. Meanwhile, a local project to create a plant-based replica of Wagyu beef has attracted $7.6 million in funding from Protein Industries Canada (PIC)—one of the country’s five Innovation Superclusters—and a group of participating companies. If consumers are ready, the lines between farm, ranch and laboratory could soon be erased. And that old vegetarian rallying cry, “Meat is murder,” will no longer be an open-and-shut case.

Founded by CEO Dorian Banks, Cult (short for “cultured”) has invested in eight different cultured meat projects as well as in MeliBio, a producer of cultured honey. “It’s allowing retail investors in Canada to have a ‘steak’ in the game,” says Cult adviser Rob Harris. “Pun intended.”

READ MORE: B.C. producers making plant-based meat alternatives

Cultured meat—obtained not by slaughtering animals but by growing organic material from cell cultures—is slowly moving closer to store shelves. Already, a Singapore restaurant called 1880 has offered cultured chicken on a tasting menu (along with waffles created via traditional waffle-iron technology). Scientists at Osaka University have succeeded in 3D-printing Wagyu beef, starting with cultured cells taken from beef cattle. 

During a recent press conference at UBC, Wamame Foods, a subsidiary of Burnaby’s Top Tier Foods, announced its own planned Wagyu beef product, this one entirely plant-based. Wamame’s Wagyu will use protein isolates from canola and peas processed at Manitoba-headquartered Merit Functional Foods—a project also backed by nonprofit PIC—and will feature flavour enhancements from agritech outfit Winecrush in Summerland.

UBC’s faculty of land and food systems will assist in research, and Burnaby-based Wismettac Asian Foods will help market the finished product. “We’re looking at a staggered release of new products over 18 months,” says Wamame president Blair Bullus, “beginning early 2022.” 

Credit: Photo by Tanya Goehring

Wamame Foods CEO Blair Bullus

Right now, the market is dominated by industry pioneers Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. Locals are also making their mark, like Victoria’s Very Good Butchers and Modern Meat, a Vancouver operation that features the recipes of culinary star Karen Barnaby. 

But Wamame’s Wagyu beef project is more ambitious. The goal is to create a premium cut of faux meat that can sit on shelves side-by-side with steaks, roasts and chicken breasts. “We’re not going to work on creating meatballs and sausage and lasagna,” Bullus explains.

Wamame Wagyu will retail for more than other plant-based meat substitutes. “Wagyu beef costs $200 a pound,” Bullus points out. “We’re thinking [our product will be] 20 to 30 percent more expensive than other plant-based alternatives.”

Both plant-based meat substitutes and cultured meats face a similar challenge—replicating the look, feel and taste of prime cuts. Products that resemble sausages or beef patties are simpler to create because the meat-culturing process currently produces an end result that is somewhat formless. “Essentially we grow these cells successfully in a medium that looks like a porridge slurry,” Harris says.

No one is salivating at the prospect of barbecuing lab-grown meat gruel. So the goal is to mimic the structure of whole cuts of meat—what Harris calls “scaffolding.” Think of trying to reverse-engineer a sirloin from a bag of hamburger. “It’s an incredibly challenging exercise.”

Close won’t cut it. It’s reminiscent of the “uncanny valley,” a problem that has long bedevilled robotics and digital art. Attempts to create a replica of the human face become more disturbing and unsettling as one gets closer to perfection—almost human is creepier than clearly not human. 

Likewise, meat mimicry can’t be much less than perfect. “I think consumers are going to have a high expectation of what that chicken breast should look like,” Harris says. “It can’t look kind of half-assed and not the way they expect it to.”

“We haven’t reached a replicable alternative yet,” Bullus concedes.

Beyond the technical challenges, these products might face other retail hurdles. Could cultured meat appeal to vegetarians satisfied that no animals were harmed? “It shouldn’t be the goal of this technology to shift vegetarians into a meat-eating diet,” Harris says. “We need fewer meat eaters, not more. What we care more about is substituting our product into a meat eater’s diet.”

As for the health angle, Bullus admits that creating a healthy product isn’t the main aim of the beef project. “We’re attempting to replicate Wagyu beef, which has fat content that can go upward of 50 percent. What we would like to do is recreate that high-fat, high-flavour product but remove some of the more unattractive elements, like methylcellulose, and some of the salt content.” (A thickening agent also used in laxatives, methylcellulose is found in products from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods.)

Might lab-grown meat face the same consumer prejudice now aimed at genetically modified organisms? “There’s always some sort of backlash,” Harris says. “I think the best approach is, don’t hide. Let’s have an open dialogue. Here’s the process; we’re going to show you how it’s made every step of the way.”

Who will win the faux meat battle—cultured or plant-based? Plant-based products are closer to retail-ready, but Harris sees room for everybody. “This isn’t an either/or situation,” he insists. “Here are two very promising, sustainable ways to provide protein to humans. I think you’re going to see consumers adopt both.”