Fermenting: the future of animal-free meat | FT Tech
Silicon Valley venture capital is feeding a budding business in fermented, animal-free proteins - creating bacon, turkey and egg white from yeasts and fungus. FT San Francisco correspondent Dave Lee considers its potential over a slice of fungus salami
Produced by Alpha Grid. Presented by Dave Lee
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In the foothills of south San Francisco, perched above a Silicon Valley freeway, is a test lab designed to hatch a new kind of egg farm. No cages, no conveyor belts, and crucially, no chickens.
We produce real animal protein without using animal. It is identical to what the animal makes.
The Every Company is refining its production of animal-free egg white and protein supplements. Backed by $233mn in funding from investors as far afield as Singapore, it uses two very different technologies, genetic engineering and the age old process of fermentation.
So in the same way that brewers use yeast to convert sugar into alcohol to make beer and wine, we use yeast to convert sugar into protein. But what we do, specifically, is we can 3D print the DNA sequence that codes for any protein known to man and feed that to the yeast. And so, as a yeast eats sugar, it starts, actually, reading the DNA sequence. And then, it starts printing out the specific protein that it was encoded.
Fermented protein is a budding industry within the alternative meat sector, that's found a home and plenty of capital in and around San Francisco.
People here are willing to fund crazy ideas. You have the huge critical mass of people who made their money being very early stage employees at some of the biggest tech companies in the world, who had crazy ideas as well.
Using fungus to make bacon and America's beloved deli meats like salami and turkey might seem like a crazy idea, too. But it makes perfect sense to investors, who've stumped up at least $18.5mn to fund another local start-up, Prime Roots, to do just that.
I'm Dave. Great to meet you.
Americans, on average, eat 200 deli sandwiches per person, per year. And so it really is this everyday staple. Within conventional deli meats, there is a tonne of baggage. So you have nitrates, there's a lot of hormones, antibiotics, salt, the list goes on and on. Our ingredient list is really short and clean and that's something we take a lot of pride in.
I'm invited into the test kitchen where deli meats like salami are made without meat.
Where we make the magic happen.
The protein comes from koji, a fungus with mesh like filaments, or mycelium. Such fibres from other kinds of fungi are also used in quorn and other meat alternatives.
This is some koji we grew in a ball jar. But it really lets you see the fibrous texture that the koji has. It really replicates the microscopic texture of the meat.
Once the sugary, fermented liquid has been drained...
So start the mixer.
The koji can be mixed, seasoned, pressed, and baked into all kinds of forms and flavours.
Watch how nicely it slices.
I'm sampling a slice or three of koji fungus salami. It's not just acceptable salami, it's good salami. It's very delicious. As tasty as alternative proteins can be, the industry still faces an uphill battle in convincing consumers to make the switch. Here in the US, conventionally-reared animal proteins still dominate the market.
The value of the global meat market was estimated at up to $1.8tn in 2021, dwarfing the $9.9bn valuation of the meat substitute sector. But that's expected to change. In the US, per capita revenue in the substitute market is projected to almost double in five years, from $3.90 in 2021 to $7.27 by 2026.
Journalist and author Larissa Zimberoff has documented the fusion of food technology and business, especially around her hometown.
That it has to be more delicious.
And is an expert on alternative proteins.
So you're going to try the plant-based lamb today.
I'm going to give it a go.
She believes younger generations and increasing concern over the emissions and environmental damage from livestock industries will drive high demand for alternative, more sustainable meat substitutes.
Plant-based meats only has about less than 1 per cent of the meat sector, right? And they have a huge way to go. But once Generation Z and Generation Alpha pick up and once they have control of the wallet, we will see changes happen faster.
But I want to know how fermented protein makers can compete with the producer of the vegan lamb in our salad and establish plant-based brands selling burgers and nuggets in supermarkets in restaurants across the country.
Fermentation is one of the top dogs right now. People want to call it clean. It is a short ingredient list. And you can wrap your head around it, unlike the plant-based alternatives, which have 12 to 15 ingredients.
But the biggest advantage for fermentation may be cost. Cultivated, or lab grown meat makers, are struggling to upscale production to make their outputs viable and agreeable to food regulators.
Most plant-based protein contains pulses and grains, many of which have soared in price and often require sophisticated and expensive equipment to make it look and feel like meat. Neither of those issues apply with a fermented protein that can be grown in a basic sugar solution and formed using conventional catering kits.
Our timelines and our costs are less expensive than if you had to custom make equipment. In terms of the cost, right out of the gate, we're actually pricing competitively with the middle of the market.
For animal-free egg white manufacturer Every, the trick is to partner with established companies, like brewing giant AB InBev, and use their existing facilities to ferment the protein.
So there are companies around the world who have fermentation facilities where we can immediately plug and play into. And that allows us to have maximum optionality and scale up very quickly.
Conventionally-reared meat is still popular in the alternative friendly streets of San Francisco. But California is also one of many regions bearing the brunt of a changing climate that brings high emission industries like conventional agriculture into question and emerging sectors like fermented protein into the spotlight.