Foods of the Future Part 1: Stem Cell Meat a Step Too Far

How to meet the burgeoning demand for meat products is one of the biggest questions in food. Global retail sales of chilled and frozen processed meat are expected to increase by US$12 billion over 2013-2018, yet over the past 15 years global growth in processed meat consumption has outstripped growth in the number of cattle and the area of land used for pasture. Consumers need to cut down on the amount of meat in their diet, or accept new technologies such as stem cell meat production. At the moment though, the latter seems like a step too far.

Global Growth Consumption of Chilled Processed Meat Compared to Pasture Land and Cattle

Source: Euromonitor International

A New Type of Harvest

Stem cell meat technology has the potential to reduce the environmental impact of cattle farming. While sounding like scientific fantasy, meat grown from stem cells became a reality last year after researchers in the Netherlands produced a hamburger harvested from a single group of cells derived from a cow, all for the price of €250,000. The scientists estimate that with cells taken from one cow, they could culture 3 billion more, producing enough processed meat to feed 40,000 people for a year – although they are a long way off from producing a cut of fresh meat such as a steak or chop. But the real challenge that this technology will face is not what it tastes like or even how environmentally friendly it can be, but where in the market it fits and whether it will be trusted by cautious, price-sensitive consumers.

Europe Looks Like the Best Fit for Stem Cell Meat

When looking at the numbers, Europe seems like the best market for stem-cell meat to find shelf space in the future. Taking per capita meat consumption as an indicator for stem cell meat’s market potential, nine out of ten countries with the highest consumption are in Europe. As well as high volume consumption, Western Europe also has the highest per capita spend on processed meat globally, at US$126 in 2013. Unit prices are higher in this region compared to others globally, which is an important factor as the price of stem-cell meat – if it were to make it to retail – is likely to be more expensive than standard products because of the cost of production.

Per Capita Processed Meat Consumption in Top 10 Countries in 2013

Source: Euromonitor International

Note:  Combined volume consumption of canned/preserved meat and meat products, chilled processed meat, frozen processed poultry and red meat

In reality though, Europe’s consumers are likely to be the most difficult to convince. GM foods (dubbed “frankenfoods” by the tabloids) have been rejected in the region not just because of the issues surrounding biodiversity but also because they’re perceived in some way as being “unnatural”. Meat grown from stem cells is likely to be seen as equally “artificial” and while the environmental argument could have resonance, green consumers, while growing in numbers, are in the minority. Stem cell meat has relatively complex origins and production methods, both of which could fuel the mistrust sparked by the horsemeat scandal and prevailing lack of transparency in the meat industry. Consumption of processed meat products in Western Europe fell by US$775 million from 2012 to 2013 – any scandal or mention of fraud would have the potential to do enormous damage to the new technology.

Too Expensive for Developing Markets

Stem cell meat isn’t likely to be any more successful in developing markets. Russia, China and Romania are three of the countries with the highest forecast growth of per capita consumption of processed meat products, although spend is dramatically lower in these countries than in Europe – the higher unit price of stem cell meat means that it will struggle to attract consumers in developing markets where the predominant consideration when choosing food products is price. Yet it is the growing demand for animal products from the emerging middle classes that is causing the strain on natural resources – the main reason that stem cell meat is looking to become a viable retail product. While sounding like an environmental and ethical dream, stem cell meat is going to struggle to make the leap from petri dish to plate.