The plant-based meat alternative market is growing rapidly, and cell-cultured meats could be coming soon to your dinner plate once they receive regulatory approval. Gavin Dundas, Patent Attorney at Reddie & Grose, provides his expert perspective on the state of the meat alternative market.
Which is receiving more emphasis based on patent activity: lab-grown meat or plant-based meat alternatives?
Comparing cultivated meat to plant-based meat is a bit like comparing apples and oranges.
Plant-based meat is here - it’s in shops, and it’s in growing numbers of restaurants and fast-food outlets. Even McDonald’s – arguably the world’s most well-known hamburger outlet – released its first plant-based burger in the UK on 13 October 2021: the aptly-named McPlant. The McPlant has been accredited as vegan by the Vegetarian Society, and includes vegan sauce, vegan cheese and a plant-based burger co-developed with Beyond Meat.
Cell-cultured meat is a very different prospect, as cellular agriculture is more high-tech, so companies entering that sector require a higher degree of specialised technical expertise. Companies delving into cultivated meat also require a fair bit of funding, as cultivated meat has not been approved for sale in any country other than Singapore, so it is not yet possible to sell their products to consumers.
The reality at the moment is that plant-based meat alternatives have a huge head-start in the marketplace, while cultivated meat is not yet on sale in most countries. So, for most new companies looking to make money in the alternative protein market, plant-based products are likely to be the easier way to start.
On the other hand, this means that the plant-based meat market is more crowded already, while cultivated meat companies are investing in the hope of getting a bigger share of that market once it matures.
In which food types have you seen a particular surge in patent applications, for example plant-based meat alternatives or lab-grown meat?
Based on searches using patent classification codes commonly used for plant-based meats and lab-grown meat (known as ‘cell-cultured meat’ or ‘cultivated meat’), it appears that there are significantly more patent applications in the field of plant-based meats, but that patent filings relating to cultivated meat are growing more quickly.
Of all the patent publications relating to plant-based meats, 15.2% were published since the start of 2020. Of the patent publications relating to cultivated meats, 27.6% were published since the start of 2020.
This outcome is probably not surprising. Plant-based meats have been around much longer and are now widely established in the market, so many more companies have had time and opportunity to file patent applications for innovations in this area. Cultivated meats are at an earlier stage in their development, but with a large number of new companies having been formed in this area in the last few years, it is not surprising that this has resulted in a high growth rate of patent applications as cultivated meat gets closer to commercial reality.
Beyond Meat’s plant-based meat substitutes have reached the mainstream. | Jonathan Weiss/Shutterstock
How much movement has there been on the equipment and other innovations that will facilitate large-scale meal alternative manufacturing?
There is a huge difference between small-scale production of cultivated meat in a laboratory, and the large-scale manufacturing that would be needed to supply supermarkets and restaurants throughout whole countries and - eventually - the whole world.
Growing meat using cellular agriculture involves the use of animal cell lines to grow animal products in bioreactors, where the cells are immersed in a growth medium that feeds nutrients to the cells as they develop. Over the last decade there have been huge advances in these processes, but as demand for cultivated meat grows there will definitely be continued innovation to improve efficiency and scale-up manufacturing capacity.
Commercial growth medium is currently costly, so the development of more cost-effective growth media is likely to be an area of much research. Another ongoing challenge is the development of high-quality cell lines and scaffold materials that are suitable for high-quality, large-scale production.
Bioreactor design is also expected to be a big area of innovation - up until now, bench-top bioreactors have in most cases been sufficient to meet the demands of cultivated meat R&D, but as demand increases bigger and better bioreactors will be needed. A particular challenge will be to design bioreactors capable of growing thick tissue layers on a commercially viable scale.
While there is scope for innovation in all of these areas, some companies are already ready to manufacture their cultivated meat products on a large scale. Future Meat Technologies, for example, opened its first industrial cultivated meat production facility in June 2021 in Rehovot, Israel - that facility is reportedly capable of producing 500kg of cultivated meat products every day. In November 2021, Upside Foods opened its first large-scale cultivated meat production plant in Emeryville, California, with the capacity to produce 22,680kg of cultured meat annually.
At the moment, however, a lack of regulatory approval is holding back cultivated meat production. While there are a number of companies that apparently have products ready for market, many will be unwilling to plough huge amounts of money into large-scale manufacturing facilities until they have regulatory approval that lets them actually sell their products.
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The UK has cutting-edge companies in the cultivated meat field.
Have any innovations or areas of innovation struck you as particularly exciting? If so, could you tell us more about them?
I am a meat-eater trying to cut down on my consumption of meat, due to a mixture of environmental and ethical motivations. So, as a consumer I’ve been very excited to see the arrival of plant-based meat into the mainstream.
I am particularly excited to try cultivated meat once it is approved for sale. Not long ago ‘lab-grown’ meat seemed like science-fiction, so to get to a point where you can go out and buy it will be incredible. So many people are unwilling to cut down on meat because they like the taste, and because their favourite meals are meat-based, so cultivated meat might hopefully give that same experience with fewer of the drawbacks of animal meat.
I am also excited to see the diversity of cultivated meat products. Cultivated meat chicken nuggets and beef burgers are the products that spring to mind when cell-cultured meat is mentioned, but there are companies out there developing cultivated bacon, pork belly, salmon and tuna, to name a few.
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Given what you know about the patent landscape, where do you think the meat alternative industry is heading, and at what sort of pace do you foresee significant change?
I think the meat alternative industry is only going to continue to grow, as concern over the environmental impact of our eating habits is growing, and the quality and availability of meat alternatives is getting better.
The plant-based meat industry is already doing well, and I expect it to continue on its upward trajectory. I expect companies in this field to continue to file patent applications for their innovations, and eventually we might see some of those patents being enforced to safeguard valuable market shares for the patent owners.
Cultivated meat is the sector that seems to be poised for the most significant change. At the moment, the lack of regulatory approval seems to be the thing holding it back, but if that hurdle is removed there are UK companies aiming to get cultivated meats into shops by 2023. The UK is lucky enough to be home to a number of cutting-edge companies in the field, and a recent report by Oxford Economics researchers forecast that cultivated meat could be worth £2.1 billion to the UK economy by 2030.
The idea of cultivated meat is unlikely to appeal to everyone, so I imagine that it will start out as something of a novelty, but I’d expect to see the availability and range of cultivated meat products grow significantly over the next decade.
Edited by Eoin Redahan. You can read more of his work here.