There’s no denying the impact COVID-19 has had on practically every industry. From the beauty industry to the food tech industry, a strong shift toward a healthier, more holistic approach is at their core. According to 46% of those questioned in the Panasonic report on the effects of the pandemic on the food industry, the urgency for tech adoption substantially increased since the pandemic started.

From alternative proteins and vegan substitutes to cellular agriculture and superfoods, the food tech industry is well on its way to change our diets, and subsequently, our lives. However, with such great promises for the future come great challenges.

 

Regulatory Issues on Novel Foods

Before any type of novel food, including foods originating from plants, animals, microorganisms, cell cultures, minerals, could reach the supermarket shelves they must go through a secure regulatory approval that could take a couple of years. Since no cultured meat has reached its final commercial-scale process, there has yet to be a bid submitted for regulatory approval. There has, however, been a bid for more than 156 innovative foods, including apple cell cultures and mung bean proteins, since 2018. If everything goes according to plan, we should expect to see some form of cultured meat commercialized by 2023.

 

Scalability of the Production and Affordability vs Classic Foods

One of the effects of COVID-19 was a spike in the consumerism of plant-based meat, dairy and eggs with sales of plant-based meat rising more than 264% during the starting months of the pandemic. If in post-COVID’s 2019, the market value of plant based-meat around the world was estimated at $11.1 billion, it is forecast to steadily increase by 2027 to reach around $35.5 billion.

With that being said, many cultured meat companies have cited input costs as the biggest obstacle in their quest to creating affordable products that will be available on a large scale. Back in 2013, Prof. Mark Post of Mosa Meat unveiled his first cultured hamburger, which then cost over $330,000. Since then, prices have gone dramatically down but cultured meat remains pricey due to the use of nutrient-rich serum that is fed to cells. Since a single kilogram of cultured meat requires hundreds of liters of serum, this remains one of the industry’s main challenges.

Some companies are not waiting around for a change, they are propelling it. Using the right technology and engineering to scale the prices in order to decrease them significantly. In 2019, Mosa Meat reported that they managed to reduce the costs of the serum by 88 times so that their first nearly-million-dollar burger is now a thing of the past. US cultured meat company, JUST, has managed to produce $50 chicken nuggets and Israeli cultured meat startup, Aleph Farms, has predicted that it will be able to reach cost parity with conventional meat quicker than most plant-based meat alternatives.

 

Taste Test

One of the main challenges facing the food tech industry, particularly in relation to plant-based meat and cultured meat is its taste and texture. Many consumers are finding that it is the flavor of cultured meat that is currently the barrier to them wholeheartedly adopting the vegan and flexitarian alternative. With that being said, companies like Memphis Meat have claimed that the taste of their cultured meat is more or less indistinguishable from regular meat. However, they were also the ones who paid for the study to be done so it’s no wonder people are still skeptical about the flavor of cultured meat. Getting the texture right in plant-based meat alternatives has always been challenging. The appearance of plant-based meat is also going through a change, with companies trying to make it appear red like the color of real meat.

 

Becoming Mainstream Through Collaborations With Larger Food Brands & Chains

The food tech industry is making a leap throughout the world, with Singapore becoming the first country in the world to approve the selling of lab-grown chicken products to consumers. The post-COVID increased demand for alternative proteins raised lab-grown meat startups’ capital by over $383 million in 2020 with large well-known companies committing to a shift to new plant-based products. And with 30 global lab-grown meat companies emerging over the past 7 years, there is no wonder large food brands and chains are taking notice.

In 2020, KFC Russia partnered with research lab 3D Bioprinting Solutions to start making chicken nuggets using chicken cells and plant material. The Unilever Group set a “future food” ambition and an annual global sales target of €1 billion from plant-based meat and dairy alternatives. Ikea also declared that by 2025 half its restaurant meals and 80% of its packaged food offerings would be plant-based.

Furthermore, following the pandemic outbreak Walmart China teamed up with Varcode to receive a digital technology that will be able to track and assess the freshness of perishable foods by scanning them with a phone’s barcode. One of Walmart’s and Kroger’s biggest beef suppliers, Jensen Meat, is also making a shift and delving into the world of plant-based meat, and the list goes on and on.

With over 2,000 chains across the country, Chinese fast-food chain Dicos took things a step forward by completely altering its meat-based menu in 500 of its locations, becoming the first fast-food company to only use plant-based ingredients in its menu.

The food tech industry is pursuing its way to our plates, by overcoming the challenges met so far. While regulatory and cultural issues remain open, the industry is getting closer to a commercialization phase.