Love Steak? This Lab
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Love Steak? This Lab

Jul 31, 2023

Israel's Aleph Farms is unique among emerging cultivated meat producers in offering steaks, but first, the company has to get approval to sell it somewhere.

By Devin Leonard

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Didier Toubia taps his foot nervously. He's in the back seat of a Renault station wagon driven by Yohai Schneider, whose family owns one of Israel's largest ranches, and they’re off on this chilly morning in the Golan Heights see some cows in a nearby pasture. Before they get there, Toubia has a business proposition he wants to raise with the cattleman.

The two wouldn't appear to be natural chums. Toubia is the chief executive officer of Aleph Farms, an Israeli startup that grows meat from cells rather than raising and slaughtering animals, and he's adamant that the traditional meat industry, particularly the beef sector, is devastating the climate with methane emissions and unconscionable levels of deforestation. He argues that companies such as his can transform the animal protein business, making it more sustainable and giving it the potential to feed millions more.

Such an upheaval could mean fewer ranchers. But as much as Toubia would like to see the demise of large factory farms, he has a plan to save smaller operators such as Schneider, whose free-range practices he praises. He’d like to pay them to provide Aleph with cow cells, and even equip them with bioreactors—cauldron-like devices in which companies like Aleph make meat—so they can brew up their own boutique, cell-grown cuts.

As the portly, silver-haired Schneider steers the Renault through the hills of northern Israel, Toubia, who was raised in Paris and retains his Gallic accent, makes his cell-purchasing pitch. "You would have additional revenues," Toubia says. "And for us, it's also a way to source the best cells."

"Does it taste like meat?" Schneider asks skeptically. "Does it look like meat?"

Yes, says Toubia, explaining that Aleph isn't trying to copy the thick, marbled cuts for sale in the rancher's butchery. Aleph's plan is to launch commercial sales of a slim piece of beef closer in size to a minute steak. In a few years, he hopes to add to its menu a heartier rib-eye produced with a 3D bioprinter. "The idea is to create our own space in the meat universe," Toubia tells him.

Schneider says he gets it. Why copy something, he muses, if you can't get it right? He says his father always tried to replicate his grandmother's stew, but it never tasted the same. "Exactly," Toubia says, sounding hopeful.

Still, Schneider seems uninterested. He shifts into tour guide mode, pointing to a flock of storks overhead, the dark veins of volcanic rock in the surrounding fields, and over there, the ruins of a Jewish city dating back to Biblical times. Toubia lets the subject drop.

In a subsequent interview, Schneider says he’d be willing to do a cow cell deal with Aleph. He is less certain about cultivating meat on his ranch, and doubts many other ranchers would want to because of concerns about what lab-grown meat might mean for their legacy businesses. "They would be afraid," Schneider says.

Few would take issue with Toubia's assessment of the current meat business. The United Nations says the global livestock industry is responsible for 14.5% of the world's anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, much of it coming from cattle ranching, which the international body also blames for high levels of deforestation in Latin American, Africa and Asia. Some insist meat eaters must swap their burgers for lentils, but they won't doing so in droves anytime soon. The UN predicted last year that with the world's population expected to climb by 11% in the coming decade, meat consumption would rise by an even greater 14%.

Toubia says that what he prefers to call "cultivated meat" must be part of the solution, and he's hardly a lone voice. Last year, investors poured $1.4 billion into the fledging industry, according to the Good Food Institute, a non-profit championing alternative proteins. Meanwhile, the number of companies involved in the making of cell-grown meat worldwide rose to 107.

Few CEOs have promoted cell-grown meat's climate benefits as vigorously as Toubia. Unlike some rivals that plan to launch by selling ground chicken, Aleph is focusing entirely on beef, which Toubia says is likely to benefit the environment much more. Aleph is also producing full steaks, albeit slender ones for the present, and in relatively small batches. It's a more laborious process, but Toubia argues that it should eventually be more profitable for the company.

This approach sets Aleph apart from its competitors. "In the landscape of cell-cultured meat companies, Aleph Farms is unique," says Chase Purdy, author of Billion Dollar Burger: Inside Big Tech's Race for the Future of Food. "They’re attempting to create the more difficult types of products—the physical cuts, the steaks." The strategy has enabled Aleph to woo such investors as Leonardo DiCaprio, who has joined the company's sustainability advisory board; Cargill, the U.S. based meatpacking giant; Abu Dhabi's sovereign wealth fund; and Brazil's BRF, the world's largest chicken exporter.

Listening to Toubia, it's easy to get the impression that the brave new world of slaughter-free animal protein is just around the corner. His industry was elated in November, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ruled that chicken produced by Upside Foods, a Berkeley, California-based rival of Aleph's, was safe to eat. It was the first time a regulator in what's likely to be the world's largest market for lab-grown meat has bestowed such a blessing. Upside must still clear additional hurdles with the US Department of Agriculture before it can start shipping fare to restaurants and supermarkets.

Even if such companies as Upside and Aleph satisfy those requirements, their path to profitability is hardly assured. Thus far, only Singapore has allowed the sale of lab-grown meat—and by only one company, Eat Just. By its own admission Eat Just, headquartered in Alameda, Calif., has yet to make money because the cost of producing its chicken outstrips what it can charge. "I don't want to say the exact loss," Josh Tetrick, the company's CEO, told an audience in May at the Bloomberg Intelligence Thematic Investing Conference. "Folks might get up and leave the room."

Toubia acknowledges that his industry still faces some significant obstacles, but he says companies like his are on the verge of overcoming them. Hanna Tuomisto, leader of the University of Helsinki's Future Sustainability Food System research group, isn't so sure. She's been following the industry since 2008. "Back then, everybody was saying that these products will be available in five years," Tuomisto says. Fourteen years later, she sighs, "I’m just becoming more skeptical as time goes on."

"Smell the smell of meat," says Toubia proudly. He's leaning against a countertop in the test kitchen in his company's headquarters in Rehovot, a half-hour south of Tel Aviv. Amir Ilan, Aleph's urbane in-house chef, grills up some tiny cuts of cultivated steak and presents me with a few bites wrapped in asparagus, enoki mushrooms and sprouts. He follows these with morsels sautéed in butter with Negri rice. "It's a traditional Japanese beef dish," he says, placing it in front of me. "So enjoy."

Through the plate-glass window behind us, Aleph employees in protective gear toil in the pilot production facility. They’re allowing cells to multiply in a bioreactor, a stainless-steel tank about the size of a washing machine that's often used in the food and pharmaceutical industries to produce such items as vitamins and beer. Once they have enough cells, the workers will thread them into plant-based scaffolds and place them into a second device known as a tissue bioreactor, where they differentiate into muscle, fat, and collagen cells, emerging later as steaks. The entire process takes three to four weeks, a blink of an eye compared to the two years it takes to nurture a cow before dispatching it to the slaughterhouse.

The meat is tender and juicy. It tastes like steak, all right, and it won't come cheap. Toubia is reluctant to specify how much it costs Aleph to produce; an Aleph spokesman later tells me the company anticipates that when it starts selling steaks, they will initially cost more than 50% above the price of the usual stuff, and that's even though its cuts will be more than 50% plant-based. In short, this is a product that may appeal, in its early days, primarily to eco-warriors with extra cash and adventurous culinary tastes. (Toubia says Aleph has a plan to be able to offer its steaks for the same price as the usual kind within five years of launching.)

Whatever the cost, today's sampling isn't enough for a meal. We wind up at a local hummus place for lunch, where Toubia waxes on about the appeal of cultivated meat. It's more challenging to get him to talk about himself. The biographical deals he offers seem tailored to support the role he has created for himself: a virtuous food tech crusader. The son of an architect, Toubia, 49, became interested as a college student in malnutrition and global food shortages, leading him to pursue a master's degree in food engineering at AgroSub, an agricultural school in Dijon, France. Upon graduating in 1995, he worked in the Ivory Coast for the World Bank. What he witnessed in Africa reinforced his concern that the world's food system was out of balance.

The crisis would have to wait. Toubia relocated to Israel, where he devoted two decades to working in the medical technology industry, leading two successful startups. He remained interested in food, however, and in 2016 he was introduced to Professor Shulamit Levenberg, dean at the time of the biomedical engineering faculty at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, who had developed a method of using stem calls to grow human tissue outside of the body with the help of biodegradable scaffolds.

Levenberg believed the system could be used to produce food commercially. What she needed was a seasoned executive to get such a venture off the ground. Toubia fit the job description. "He had all this knowledge and experience," says Levenberg, now Aleph's chief scientific adviser. "He was perfect as the CEO."

The two, along with the Kitchen Hub, an Israeli food-tech incubator, founded a company known as Meat the Future. They soon wisely jettisoned that name in favor of Aleph Farms—after the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In 2018, Aleph produced the first cell-grown steak. "We had the feeling that we’d cracked the code," Toubia recalls fondly.

Last year, Aleph announced it had found a way to place cells into an ink that could be fed into a 3D bioprinter and layered to produce a thicker rib-eye. Toubia says it probably will not be ready for broader consumption for several years. "It's not as advanced as the thin cuts," he says. What's more, he says, Aleph needs to develop a new kind of bioprinter before it can churn out such hybrid cuts by the thousands.

Within months of the news, Aleph raised $105 million, giving the company a valuation of $325 million, according to Pitchbook. Then in September of that year, DiCaprio graced Aleph with an undisclosed investment and—better yet—his Hollywood glow. Toubia says Aleph's celebrity backer has been very supportive, though not as active as his fellow of members of the company's sustainability board members. "Obviously, he's super-busy," Toubia says. The Academy Award-winning actor declined to comment.

Now, the question is when will Aleph start selling steaks? Toubia says Aleph hopes to start within the next year or so in Singapore or Israel, or possibly both. Singapore has yet to allow the sale of lab-grown meat by any company other than Eat Just. Israel hasn't granted permission to any cell-grown meat startup. (Regulators in both counties declined to discuss their plans with Bloomberg Green.)

To hear Toubia tell it, Aleph's initial foray, wherever it occurs, will be the prelude to a grander one in the US perhaps the following year. In November, Aleph hired Kevin Benmoussa, a former Nestlé Water and PepsiCo executive, to oversee its operations there. Aleph is hunting for an East Coast location to build its first large-scale production facility. Toubia say it will be outfitted with bioreactors that will dwarf the ones I saw in Rehovot and be able one day to generate millions of pounds of steak a year.

They’ll have to do that and considerably more if Aleph seriously intends to steal market share from U.S. meat companies, which produced 26 billion pounds of beef in 2017, according to the North American Meat Institute. Until then, it's hard to conceive how lab-grown meat companies will be able to play a signficant role in curbing global warming, let alone combat global food insecurity. First, they must clear some major hurdles.

Last year, The Counter, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to interrogating food issues, published a lengthy story questioning whether lab grown-meat startups would ever succeed in cultivating vast amounts of their products cheaply. It noted that bioreactors that might be large enough to produce meat on such a scale didn't yet exist; even if they did, there were constraints on the volume of cells that could be produced in them.

The problem, says Ricardo San Martin, research director at Alternative Meats X-Lab at University of California, Berkeley and one of the skeptics quoted in the piece, is that the more densely you attempt to cultivate mammalian cells, the more likely they are to fatally choke on the waste they generate. "There's a limit to that," San Martin tells me. "It's based on biology, not the goodwill of the company or the capacity of the researchers or the money they have."

Another roadblock is the cost of what's known in the industry as media, a mix of ingredients fed to cells while they are being cultivated, such as amino acids and vitamins. They can also include proteins such as transferrins, which deliver iron to cells, and can cost $260 a gram, according to The Counter. Small wonder, then, that media prices are often cited as the primary reason for the prohibitive cost of lab-grown meat.

Toubia says The Counter raised "valid points," but that the industry's doubters don't understand the strides companies like his have made toward solving such problems. He waves off the concerns of people like San Martin about cells perishing in larger bioreactors, saying this is just another one of those issues his industry is close to resolving. As for high ingredient prices, Toubia says he's negotiating with suppliers, telling them they can cut prices and still turn a profit because Aleph and its peers will be buying so many of their goods. Still, he admits, this is a tough case to make when his industry is in such a nascent stage.

Perhaps it's not so terrible, then, that the FDA and USDA, which jointly regulate cell-grown meat, haven't seemed in any rush to broadly greenlight its availability. The cell-grown meat industry needs time to work out some of its kinks. Meanwhile, however, these companies are startups, and they need to keep raising venture capital. To do this, they have to show they are moving ahead.

Although some mocked Eat Just's Singapore rollout in 2020 as little more than a publicity stunt, it pays to be first. The following year, the startup raised $267 million for its meat operation. (Eat Just's Tetrick says his company, which has teamed up with a variety of restaurants and delivery services in Singapore, earned invaluable lessons about what it will take to succeed commercially with cultivated meat. "That stuff's not easy," he says. "It takes a lot of work and a lot of time.")

Upside Foods, backed by Bill Gates and Richard Branson, opened a cell-grown meat production plant late last year in California, with the initial capacity to make 50,000 lbs. of meat annually; subsequently, the company raised $400 million. Never mind that Upside is grappling cell density issues, too. "I don't want to trivialize it." says Amy Chen, Upside's chief operating officer and herself a former PepsiCo executive. "It is not a snap-your-fingers to get from here to there. But nor do we think it is impossible, or even out of the realm of likelihood in the next few years."

Eat Just and Upside, which have partnerships in place with high-end chefs ready to serve their products in the U.S. once regulators approve, would seem to be much further along than Toubia's company. Then again, until one of these startups demonstrates beyond a doubt that large-scale production of cell-grown meat is a sure thing, one could argue it's merely a matter of degrees. "Are investors in these companies really aware of how long his is going to take?" says Breanna Duffy, research operations and outreach director at New Harvest, a research institute devoted to advancing the science behind cultivated meat. "There's so much hype going on in the industry right now."

It's also hard to predict whether carnivores will have an appetite for such alternative fare. Although widely available, plant-based meat accounted for only .04% of the world's retail meat market last year, according to Bloomberg Intelligence. That wouldn't seem to bode well for the cell-cultivated type. "There are still sociological barriers," says Stephanie Feldstein, population and sustainability director for the Center for Biological Diversity. "A lot of people have concerns about the idea of food grown in a lab." Toubia, naturally, is more optimistic, saying that lab-grown meat is tastier than the plant-based variety and that younger people in particular don't care about the provenance of the beef or poultry on their plates.

It may take a while to see the environmental benefits of lab-grown meat, too. According to an independent study commissioned by the Good Food Institute and Global Action in the Interest of Animals and released last year, the carbon emissions of cultivated meat could be 92% lower than those of traditionally produced beef. Yet to achieve such results, startups would have to power their operations entirely with renewable energy. Under a more conventional energy scenario forecasted for 2030, the study says, lab-grown meat could be better for the climate than old-school beef, but not chicken or pork.

Not to worry, says Toubia. He promised two years ago that Aleph will fully reach net zero status by 2030 and says the company is on track. Aleph is considering outfitting its prospective US plant with solar panels and being able to provide proof that any additional energy it needs to purchase is certified green. But isn't it hard to devise such a plan when some of the technology involved doesn't yet exist? "It's very challenging," says Lee Recht, Aleph's head of sustainability. "But we do have a very clear road map."

Back in the Golan Heights, we stroll through Schneider's muddy pasture to see cows that might one day provide cells for Aleph. They look contented as they wander freely. Schneider says this makes them taste better. Afterward, we dine on chops and strips from the farm at a nearby restaurant. The meat is delectable, but it's not kosher. So Toubia, an observant Jew, must abstain. He makes do with some vegetables.

We bid Schneider farewell and head to the Mount of Beatitudes, where it is said that Jesus Christ preached the Sermon on the Mount. The clouds are thick and gray, but periodically the sun forces its way through, giving an appropriately mystical vibe to the site over the Sea of Galilee.

Toubia says he's always moved to visit such places that have seen the birth of new cultures. It's obvious that he's drawing a parallel between early Christianity and the cell-grown meat movement for which he so ardently evangelizes. Does Toubia think he's doing something miraculous at Aleph? "Miracles are—I don't know—disconnected from the ground a little bit," Toubia says. "What we do is inside the laws of nature."

"Explainable," interjects Reuven Zusman, the mellifluous tour guide who is shepherding us around the site. "What you do is explainable."

"Exactly," says Toubia.

Even so, it may require a minor miracle—perhaps more than one—for Toubia to transform Aleph from a promising startup to a global company that literally changes the way people think about steak. He needs newfangled 3D bioprinters and lower prices from media suppliers. He must persuade small cattle ranchers that he's a friend rather than foe. He could also use another infusion of venture capital.

Then there's his hope of addressing global food insecurity. Aleph and his competitors would have to build plants around the world to make this a reality. That's the beauty of cell-grown meat, they say: You can make it anywhere, even in the middle of a desert. It won't happen tomorrow, but in the distant future? Possibly. When exactly? Like so much with cultivated meat, it's hard to say.

"If we’re talking about Jesus, not far from here is the site where he multiplied the fish," Toubia says.

"Fish and loaves," Zusman corrects.

"Which is actually similar to what we do to some extent," Toubia says, laughing. "Maybe we can find some inspiration here."

—With assistance from Yaacov Benmeleh, and Deena Shanker and Jasmine Ng