Paul Shapiro, co-founder and CEO of the Better Meat Co. in Sacramento, California, is more than just another food company entrepreneur. He’s a committed animal rights activist, serving as vice president at the Humane Society of the United States and an inductee into the Animal Rights Hall of Fame. He is also a veteran Ted X speaker and a best-selling author of “Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World.”
The Better Meat Co. is an early-stage food tech startup that’s focused on ingredients. The company makes plant-based protein formulas for meat processors to blend into their products, helping them use less actual meat. Shapiro says that it’s comparable to putting ethanol in gas for cars. The car works the same, even if 15 percent of the fuel isn’t coming from fossil fuels. Better Meat’s formulas generally go into meat products at a 30 percent to 50 percent ratio.
Shapiro’s mission is to improve food sustainability, “That’s what’s driving me. That’s why our company exists. But I think for the consumer, the fact that these nuggets have the same amount of protein as regular nuggets but also much less saturated fat, less cholesterol, fewer calories, and more fiber are all important marketing claims. When you’re thinking about why, they can say ‘If you feed this to your kid, they get a quarter cup of vegetables per serving. So, if you have a difficult time getting your kids to eat vegetables you can serve these nuggets and all of a sudden, they're getting some cauliflower, they’re getting chickpeas, but it tastes and looks just like a regular nugget.’”
He recently sat down with TraceGains CEO Gary Nowacki to talk about his book, his company, and perhaps most importantly, how he sees the future of the meat industry, especially in the shadow of the growing alternative meat market.
Despite the rise of this nascent industry, meat consumption is on the rise, especially in places like China, India, Brazil, and Mexico, large countries with the fastest growing economies, accompanied by burgeoning middle classes, are eating more meat per person.
“On the one hand, it's great people are escaping poverty and growing into the middle class,” Shapiro says. “But a side effect of that is people generally consume a lot more meat, which takes a serious toll on the planet.”
Shapiro illustrated his point in a Ted talk, when he took the stage armed with a harpoon, and spoke about America’s history as a whaling nation.
“We were the leader in the global whaling industry, and virtually every home in America was lit with whale oil lamps,” he says. “It was a huge commodity. Today we’re a whale watching nation. People still go out on boats to find and shoot whales but now we’re shooting them with cameras rather than harpoons.”
How did this industry fall from one of the most important players in the U.S. economy to becoming not only irrelevant but morally repugnant? It wasn’t some moral awakening, Shapiro points out.
“What ended up happening was, in 1853, about the same time that Abraham Lincoln was getting ready to try to save the Union, Abraham Gesner was about to save the whales,” he recalls. “But Gesner was not a pioneering environmentalist. He wasn’t somebody who cared about whales at all.”
Gesner was a Canadian geologist who invented kerosene, which would eventually displace whale oil as the lighting agent of choice in American homes. Within 30 years of his patent, the whaling industry had fallen 95 percent.
The parallel Shapiro draws to our modern animal agriculture industry is hard to ignore. Emerging technologies threaten the traditional way of raising chickens, cows, and pigs for slaughter, making it an industry ripe for technological revolution.
One such technology is called clean or cultivated meat, which is created by taking microscopic cells from an animal and growing those cells outside of the body into real meat.
“We’re not talking about an alternative to meat or a substitute to meat but rather actual animal meat that was simply grown without the animal,” Shapiro says. “It’s not science fiction; it’s science fact. In fact, I’ve eaten this kind of meat many times. I’ve eaten clean beef, duck, fish, liver, even foie gras, and there are about 20 startups racing to commercialize the world’s first slaughter-free real meats.”
An Early Obstacle
One hurdle that’s emerged to widespread consumer adoption has been what many refer to as the “yuck factor,” especially when it’s referred to as “lab grown.” It doesn’t sound like something the average consumer would want for dinner.
That being said, as Shapiro points out, the ways we produce meat today aren’t exactly what most people would describe appetizing. Yet, we still eat it.
“Take chicken as an example,” Shapiro says. “Most chickens raised for food in the United States are genetically selected to grow so big, so fast that many of them have difficulty taking more than a few steps before they collapse. They’re raised wing to wing in barns of tens of thousands of other birds living in their own feces. They’re often pumped full of antibiotics. The air is choking with ammonia and when it’s finally time to slaughter them, most people probably would prefer not to hear about it. So, when you consider how inhumane, unsustainable, and unnatural our methods of meat production are, it’s a wonder people still eat it.”
But human nature is hard to change. A lot of consumers simply like to eat meat. That’s why, as soon as people start earning more money, one of the first things they do is eat more meat. Additionally, the vast majority of people who become vegetarian eventually return to meat. From Shapiro’s perspective, it’s a lot easier to change meat than it is to change human nature.
“The facts are that the percentage of vegetarians in America really hasn’t changed over the past few decades,” Shapiro argues. “It’s a tiny fraction of the total population. And it’s even lower in many other parts of the world. Now in some countries like India or Israel, which have religiously based vegetarianism, you have higher percentages but in most of the world you basically have increasing rates of meat eating not increasing rates of vegetarianism.”
The other problem with what we call “meat alternatives” is that many in the meat industry view the term “clean meat” as a disparagement of conventional meat. It’s similar to the way oil companies probably don’t like hearing solar referred to as “clean energy.”
Nevertheless, Shapiro is quick to point out that the meat we eat today is often contaminated with E. coli, salmonella, or campylobacter.
“That’s why we have to treat raw meat almost like toxic waste,” he adds. “You’re not allowed to put it in the same grocery bag. If it touches your kitchen counter, you have to disinfect. If it touches your hands, you have to wash them. That’s because there’s fecal pathogens in there. These are intestinal pathogens that can sicken us if we don’t cook the crap out of our meat—literally. That’s all we’re doing.”
With clean meat, consumers don’t have to worry about intestinal pathogens. In fact, as Shapiro says, you’re more likely to infect the meat with your own hands than the meat is to infect you.
“Clean meat works from that perspective,” he says. “It’s literally cleaner, and cleaner for the planet. However, if people don’t want to use that, that’s fine. I think cultivated meat is a good option. It’s cultivated and that term seems to me—at least on an intuitive level—to be kind of appealing. We’re going to go out to consumers with a more appealing name for our product. But then you’ve got to overcome other barriers.”
Overcoming cultural bias is one of those barriers. Americans regularly consume a lot of things today that, in the past, might have seemed abnormal. Sushi’s a great example of that. A few decades ago, the idea of eating raw fish didn’t sound that appealing. Add seaweed to that and some might think it sounds disgusting.
“There’s a tale that’s told quite often about some innovative chef in California who had this idea to name it the California roll,” Shapiro recalls. “It made it seem not like a foreign, exotic dish, but rather something that actually sounds native. He also turned it inside out to put the rice on the outside, so the seaweed wasn’t the most obvious thing. That helped people ease into the idea of eating this type of food they hadn’t seen before.”
Price, obviously, is another barrier to mainstream acceptance of meat alternatives. The economies of scale just aren’t there yet to mass produce clean meat. The first cultured meat hamburger, produced in 2013, cost $330,000. Three years later, the industry produces a meatball that “only” cost $1,200.
“It’s pretty amazing how fast the price falls,” Shapiro says. “Now they’re making chicken nuggets with chicken cells that cost them about $100 a nugget. It’s not ready for KFC yet, but now you’re talking about just $100. So, you start thinking about how technology accelerates and how prices fall. If you think about the iPhones or smartphones most of us have in our pockets today, the very first one probably cost more than a $1 billion to produce. Now it's affordable enough that hundreds of millions of people have them.”
Technology can accelerate the price cuts for certain products if enough R&D is poured into them. The problem, Shapiro points out, is that roughly $50 million of R&D has been invested in this field. But hundreds of millions of dollars more are needed.
Ready for Prime Time?
Shapiro is confident the market is there for meat alternatives, just not next year — or the year after.
“There might be some sales of clean meat in the next year, but they’ll be minuscule,” he suggests. “It’ll be one restaurant, one place, one time. You’re not going to see it on Wal-Mart shelves. But five years? It’s possible. You could see it depending on how much investment comes into the field within that time.”
At the same time, though, there’s a parallel track with alternatives that are really speeding up—plant-based products produced by companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods—that are taking over the fast food industry and carving out space on grocery store shelves.
Like the competition between wind and solar to help replace fossil fuels, there’s a growing competition between plant-based and clean meat to replace factory farms. Plant-based meat is winning right now, Shapiro admits, but he insists clean meat will have some advantages once they’re able to scale up production and get prices down.
Shapiro looks to the dairy industry as a source of optimism for the meat alternative industry. Consider that plant-based milk is now 13 percent of the fluid milk market in the United States, thanks to options such as soy milk, almond milk, or coconut milk.
“I don’t know how quickly it will happen, but it will,” he argues. “Today less than 1 percent of meat that’s being consumed is plant-based meat, but in the future that will rise and with the ascent of companies like Beyond and Impossible and others, you’re going to see more of the meat aisles of supermarkets become protein aisles, and people are going to be happy to eat a greater diversity of protein regardless of where it came from. Maybe it will come from animals who are slaughtered. Maybe it will come from plants. Maybe it will come from cultured animal cells. Maybe it will come from microorganisms. There are a lot of companies now making proteins from yeast, for example. The future is one of a greater diversity of protein rather than one in which protein is synonymous with meat from slaughtered animals.”
Making a Difference
Shapiro disputes the conventional wisdom that this new market is targeting vegetarians and vegans. The market’s just too small.
“You have that segmentation of the market of vegetarians and vegans who are happy to eat these products but then you have the flexitarians, which is a much larger universe,” he explains. “These are meat eaters who would like to eat less meat. And those are the people who really are driving the demand for these products right now and they’re largely responsible for the success of companies like Beyond and Impossible.”
It’s all about the math. To improve sustainability, Shapiro says that if you could get 50 percent of people to eat 20 percent less meat per person, the total meat reduction would be much greater than if you get 5 percent of people to be vegetarian all the time.
“All of us are doing things, when we really examine them, that we probably could be doing better,” he argues. “It’s the same with our food choices, especially with meat. We can do better. It’s an easy thing to start with food because the impact it has and because we do it multiple times a day. I only buy shirts so often but I’m eating multiple times a day. And that’s a good opportunity to try to make a difference.”
When it comes to sustainability, Shapiro believes the food industry is part of the problem, but it’s also the solution. The problems are apparent.
“We’re raising too many animals,” he says. “We don’t have enough room on the planet. The planet’s not getting any bigger, but humanity’s footprint is getting a lot bigger. When I think about people who can actually save the world and I mean that in a real literal way, I’m thinking about people who are food scientists and others who can help the food industry do a better job of feeding the nearly 8 billion of us today and the coming billions in the future.”
Shapiro insists the solution, though, lies with food technology. Whether it will solve it in time is another question.
“With climate change occurring at the rapid pace it is, I get nervous because I’m not sure whether there will be enough time to actually solve this before it's too late,” he admits. “That’s one of the reasons why I’m so bullish on blending, because it’s something we can do today. The meat companies can blend their meats and, while something like clean meat is still years off from being a solution, we can make a dent in the numbers. It's important to invest in it. It’s critical we continue to pursue it. But I think we need other more short-term solutions as well.”
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