Tyson Foods invests in Memphis Meats

“Clean meat” startup wins large investment from one of the world’s biggest meat companies

Three dollar signs made of fruit and vegetables

Meat free eating is now so popular that even those in the meat business are keen to get on board. Tyson Foods, the world’s second largest meat company, has taken a minority stake in a pioneering San Francisco startup that aspires to bring lab-grown meat to the masses.

Memphis Meats has been leading the way in “cultured” or “clean meat” – meat grown from cells in a laboratory rather than cut from an animal – for the past few years. In 2016, it created the world’s first cultured meatball (then streamed the cooking and eating of the world’s first cultured meatball) and last year presented the world’s first lab-grown chicken strips. The concept of chicken, beef or pork that doesn’t come from an animal holds out hope that one day no living creature need be killed for omnivores to get their meat fix.

Tyson’s reach and influence could really help put the company on the map, helping it expand around the world and increase its offerings. While some may balk at the idea of getting into bed with a corporate partner of such size, and one whose fortunes depend on people eating meat, Memphis Meats explained that the move would “help us advance clean meat and achieve our ultimate vision: a world that is better for humans, animals and the planet.” It added that its goal had always been “to unite folks with different perspectives and experiences” and that its investors included “mission-driven groups, financial institutions and large food companies”.

“We want to work with them to scale,” said Memphis Meats co-founder and chief executive Uma Valeti, explaining that the decision was down to money: how to lower the prohibitive cost of creating its products so they can be sold on supermarket shelves. At the moment, it costs the company about £1,700 to create 450 g of meat.

“For the first time, we’re replacing meat with meat – not a meat alternative,” Valeti added. “That gets Tyson and Cargill enormously excited because they’re in the meat business. There’s the potential to transform feeding the world as we know it.” And as he said last year, launching Memphis’s chicken strips: “We believe that in 20 years, a majority of meat sold in stores will be cultured. The meat industry knows their products aren’t sustainable.”

While it’s unlikely Tyson is hoping to see meat free eating take off to such a degree that its bottom line is affected, the fact it is hedging its bets with investments in cutting-edge alternatives – it has also ploughed money into Beyond Meat – is a real recognition of the fact that consumers are driving a change in the way the industry operates. As Justin Whitmore, Tyson’s executive vice-president of corporate strategy and chief sustainability officer said at the time: “We’re talking about ourselves as a protein company.”

Nor is Tyson the first to spot a trend that has the potential to revolutionise the way we eat: other canny investors in Memphis Meats include Bill Gates, Sir Richard Branson and Cargill, which provides about a quarter of America’s meat. Other big players have also been taking stakes in smaller firms dedicated to weaning the world off its addiction to meat: last year Nestlé bought vegan food maker Sweet Earth Foods in order to get a foothold in the rapidly expanding meat free market, while Canada’s Maple Leaf Foods, a big meat seller, bought Lightlife, which makes vegetarian and vegan alternatives to meat.