This morning, plant-based food company JUST, Inc. announced that it will work with Japanese producer Toriyama to develop the first cultured Wagyu beef.
The San Francisco-based company will use tissue samples taken from Toriyama’s Wagyu cows (or cuts of their beef) and use that to create cell lines to grow the meat cells. Awano Food Group, a meat and seafood supplier, will market and distribute the cell-based meat, and Toriyama will get a percentage of the profit from each pound of meat that JUST sells.
But hold the applause — there are still quite a few problems JUST has to tackle before we can taste Wagyu grown outside the cow.
In a video with the Wall Street Journal, JUST CEO Josh Tetrick said that they would debut a cultured Wagyu hamburger within “a year, a year and a half.” But the press announcement notes that “as with any other product, the first step is an extensive research and development period followed by scale-up, testing, regulatory approvals and availability to the public.” All of which are pretty significant hurdles, which have to be overcome before the cell-based Wagyu can get on our plate.
Let’s start with the first issue: R&D. At this point, achieving the buttery texture of Wagyu steak is out of the question. Though some scientists are working on 3D printing meat to create different textures, or even using plants as scaffolds on which to grow the animal tissue, we’re not going to see a thick, marbled cut of cultured Wagyu anytime soon. Even Aleph Farms, the company in Israeli developing the first cell-based steak, is years away from bringing its product to market.
However, it seems like JUST is planning to avoid the steak issue altogether by making a Wagyu hamburger. From a get-to-market stance, that makes a lot of sense; but I have to wonder if it will taste all that different from any other cell-based ground beef. After all, most scientists “grow’ the meat tissue and fat cells separately and then combine them, so they can make their ground beef as fatty as they’d like. That essentially negates Wagyu’s biggest unique value add: its rich fat marbling.
Then there’s regulation. The USDA and FDA already took the first few steps towards establishing a regulatory process last month, but if JUST is planning to release their burger within a year or so, the issues around naming and food safety might not be ironed out. JUST is planning to bring a poultry cell-based product to market by the end of this year, however (though they have yet to do so). If they succeed, there will theoretically be at least some regulatory precedent in place before the Wagyu comes onto the scene.
The regulatory piece of the puzzle brings up another question: Will JUST be able to sell its new product with the label of “Wagyu”? The term is a specific Japanese beef cattle breed which dates back thousands of years and carries a lot of weight with discerning carnivores. Clearly Toriyama doesn’t have a problem with JUST using the name, but I wonder if other Wagyu producers will have the same laissez-faire attitude.
There’s also the issue of terroir, or the natural elements that give local foods, like Parmesan or Champagne, their inimitable flavor. For example, Crowd Cow has an olive Wagyu that has a legendary taste because the animals are fed caramelized olives (side note: yum). It seems like this level of nuance and locality would be reaaaaally tricky to translate into meat cultivated in a sanitized room.
However, JUST’s partnership with Toriyama does illustrate one of the coolest potentials of cell-based meats: accessibility. With its intense fat marbling, Wagyu is widely considered the Holy Grail for carnivores. It’s also really expensive; to give you an idea, Costco once sold it for $109.09 per pound. In their press release, JUST states that it hopes to use its technology to decrease the cost of Wagyu, so it can share the meat with more people at more amenable “price-points.” Which might indeed be possible… if and when they succeed in producing a product with the distinct Wagyu-ness of Wagyu.
JUST is known for pushing the envelope on cell-based meat technology. If it does succeed in creating a Wagyu product, its success (or failure) will pave the way for other companies working to recreate specific heritage meat types with cell culture technology.
This piece was updated with new information about the Wagyu product timeline from a WSJ video.