Welcome to a world in which we can have our burgers (and eat them, too) without ever raising livestock. 2018 is the year alternative meats—those produced from plant-derived proteins that uncannily mimic the flavor and texture of natural meat, as well as those grown in a lab using cell cultures from animal protein—go mainstream. Long ago are the days of rubbery tofurky and starchy nuggish. The alt-meats beating the path toward the future have tastes that rival steakhouse sirloins and carbon footprints on par with parsnips.
The alternative movement may have started slow but its growth has accelerated exponentially. After Kellogg's acquired Morningstar Farms in 1999, followed in 2000 by Kraft's purchase of Boca Burger, flooding supermarkets across the country with faux nuggets, patties, dogs of all varieties, few other manufacturers were interested in market until 2014 when frozen food giant Pinnacle Foods bought Gardein and introduced the alt-meat consumer to improved textures and flavors, growing their appetite for more. Since then growth of meat replacements has been exponential.
Last year, the kindling exploded into fire. Nestle grabbed Sweet Earth Foods; Canada's largest meat distributor, Maple Leaf Foods, swept up Field Roast and Lightlife Foods; and Dean Foods struck a distribution deal with Good Karma. Even Walmart is increased its offering of plant-based foods. Alternative meat is in demand with a growing consumer base. Brands like Impossible Burger (which, thanks to a plant protein called heme, appears to bleed if prepared rare) have made their way onto top New York City menus, and Beyond Burger is this month debuting at TGI Fridays across the country.
Last week, cell-cultured meat—the gold standard in real-meat-similitude—strapped on a jet-pack. Tyson announced its investment in Memphis Meats, the startup poised to disrupt the meat industry with its cell-cultured beef, chicken, and duck meat. Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Kimbal Musk have already thrown their star power and capital behind Memphis Meats, which secured $17 million Series A fundraising led by Draper Fisher Jurvetson, a venture capital firm invested in SpaceX, Twitter, and Tesla. Tyson's support offers Memphis Meat more than just capital, but the infrastructure it needs to scale.
Memphis Meats caused a stir in 2016 when it first unveiled a meatball grown in a lab directly from animal cells—no livestock required. Their "clean meat" aims to bypass the ethical and environmental concerns many conscious eaters raise over the production of meat. But at an operating cost of $2,400 per pound of meat, Memphis Meats has not yet brought a consumer version of their product to market. The support of Tyson (as well as agribusiness juggernaut Cargill, the second largest producer of beef globally, which also invested in Memphis Meats) means a sustainable meat is closer to realization and signals a widespread shift in acceptance of manufactured meat.