Meatpacking giant Cargill today joins a large group of A-list investors who are taking a stake in Memphis Meats, a start-up that grows beef and poultry from animal cells. Memphis announced Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and two billion-dollar VC firms also invested, but the odd financier out was clearly Cargill — America’s second-largest beef processor and the world’s largest supplier of ground beef. It’s the first investment by a traditional meat company in a lab-meat venture, although nowadays these people prefer the term “clean meat” to avoid having their products associated with microscopes and petri dishes (in fact, Memphis has even gone with “meat brewery”).
Cargill isn’t saying the exact amount of its investment, but the funding round infused Memphis Meats with another $17 million worth of capital in total. Like Tyson, JBS, and rest of the industry, Cargill is under serious pressure to adopt more sustainable practices, treat animals more humanely, and quit pumping products full of drugs. Culturing meat could go a long way toward satisfying these consumer demands, it feels. “This is another way to harvest meat,” a Cargill executive who leads growth ventures tells The Wall Street Journal. “For people who want a product from an animal welfare perspective, we want this to be there for them.”
The announcement maybe isn’t a total shock, though: Back in April, the company sold its last two cattle feedlots, removing it from the beef-processing part of the meatpacking business completely. It told press this marked “a change in priorities at the company,” specifically a burgeoning interest in plant-based proteins, fish, and insects.
Cultured meat still can’t be scaled affordably for consumers, so there’s going to be a wait before Cargill starts packing Memphis’s beef and shipping it to supermarkets. The start-up’s CEO, Uma Valeti, tells the Journal they’re hard at work reducing the price, but that right now it’s still $2,400 for a pound of their meat. Beats the $18,000 it cost a year ago, but that’s still bonkers for shoppers who aren’t billionaires named Gates or Branson. Memphis is slowly de-complicating production, which will help — the process now takes between three and six weeks. Scientists coax animal cells into self-replicating very quickly by feeding them oxygen and certain nutrients. This yields everything from burger patties to chicken strips without slaughtering any animals, and backers applaud it as the only way to make the food supply sustainable in the coming years.