Cultured Meat and Future Food is a short-form podcast series discussing the role of plant based food, cultivated meat and food technology. The show is focused on asking industry leaders questions for an audience with a non-scientific background. Cultured Meat and Future Food is targeted towards entrepreneurs interested in the food technology space.

Joe Fassler of the Counter

In “The Cultured Meat and Future Food Show,” host Alex Shirazi talks with Joe Fassler about his critical article on lab-grown meat. Fassler, from The Counter, delves into the scientific and economic hurdles facing cultured meat, discussing diverse industry feedback and media’s role in hyping the sector. They explore whether cultured meat will be niche or mainstream and the implications for government funding and public perception. The episode highlights the need for nuanced discussions on future food technologies.

Alex Shirazi (00:23):

Thanks for joining us on the Cultured Meat and Future Food Show. We’re excited to have Joe Fassler of the counter on this episode. Joe Fassler is the counter’s deputy editor. His reporting has been included in the best American food writing and twice nominated for the James Beard Media Award, the 2019 and 2020 Ted Scripps Fellow in environmental journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. He’s the author of two books, A novel The Sky Was Ours, forthcoming from Penguin Books and Light in the Dark, creativity, inspiration and the Artistic Process. Joe and I discussed his recent article entitled Lab Grown Meat is supposed to be Inevitable. The Science tells a different story, something that has actually caused quite a bit of discussion within the industry. Let’s jump right in. Thanks for joining us on the Cultured Meat and Future Food Show. We’re excited to have Joe Fassler on the episode today. Joe, welcome to the show.

Joe Fassler (01:21):

Thanks Alex. Great to talk.

Alex Shirazi (01:23):

So there’s definitely been a lot of buzz within the industry from your recent article and I’m excited to get a little bit deeper into that. But before we do, tell me a little bit about your background.

Joe Fassler (01:35):

Sure. So I’m deputy editor of the Counter and we’re a single subject nonprofit newsroom covering the business, politics and culture of American food. And what I love about Counter is that we’re not a general interest publication. We don’t really write about TV or sports or all these other things. We just do food that’s all the time. But we look at food from a variety of angles and we do all kinds of stuff. We do plenty of stories on the history and culture of food, lots of stuff on supply chain issues. We do long, you know, essays and investigations and all kinds of stuff. But food is really our beat specifically through the lens of the US because it’s such a vast topic that we have to start somewhere and we have to limit it somewhere. So we really do have a US focused publication but beyond that we try to examine food and the implications of it, of our eating and of our agriculture from every angle.

Alex Shirazi (02:32):

Excellent. And I have some cliff notes of the article here, so you might see me referencing it from time to time, but I really wanna focus the discussion around the article from September 22nd, less than a month ago, lab grown meat is supposed to be inevitable. Science tells a different story. I first wanna say Joe, I’ve been receiving a lot of emails about this article so I can’t even imagine how much kind of feedback or kind of comments you must have been receiving. Have you been seeing more feedback from this article than other articles? Would you say

Joe Fassler (03:05):

It’s been pretty overwhelming? Yeah, there’s been a lot of discussion both, you know, on social media and comments boards and publicly, but I’ve received a lot of mail as well and it’s really been fun to talk to people on this one. I’ve had all kinds of responses. I would say for the most part, very positive regardless of whether the person writing to me is someone who is financially or emotionally invested in cultured meat. There are people saying this is sobering, but thank you for your reporting. I feel like I understand it better. I’ve also heard from a lot of people from the industry, some of whom have only spoken to me, you know, sort of off the record just saying, thank you for saying this. This is the kind of thing we can’t talk about. But it’s not that the industry is unaware of these issues.

Joe Fassler (03:48):

I would say after the piece came out I was surprised and impressed to find out how fluent, I think a lot of folks who are actually working on this problem one way or the other really get this stuff. But I think the kind of public conversation specifically when it comes to the the sort of general interest media is way behind where the conversation within the industry actually is. And that was one thing I was hoping that the piece could rectify. So it’s been thrilling to hear from folks and I’ve been very gratified by the response to the piece and some of the honesty and humility that I’ve seen coming from folks who have put a lot of time or a lot of money into making this work out.

Alex Shirazi (04:25):

You mentioned that people within the industry felt they can’t really touch on some of these topics that you’ve covered. Why do you think that is?

Joe Fassler (04:34):

I think that it’s because it’s an emerging industry that is still very early on. The whole point of my piece is that there’s a lot of sort of fundamental challenges that remain unsolved and whether those challenges are solvable in a way that leads to an economically viable food product, I think is still an open question in either direction. Maybe it will happen, maybe it won’t happen. But I think it’s the role of the private sector to be a booster, to be a cheerleader, to say we’re gonna do this and we’re gonna disrupt the meat industry. Which by the way has a lot of problems with it. One aspect of the criticism that I did see of the piece was like, oh this is a meat industry. She far from it. I think the piece in a lot of my reporting is very upfront about the brutality of the meat industry and its environmental ravages and all of that stuff I think is really important and worth thinking about and discussing.

Joe Fassler (05:27):

But I think when you’re in the position of being the outsider, the David to the Goliath, that is the meat industry, what you need is resources and you need to inspire people with a vision. And I don’t think it’s very inspiring necessarily, or I think folks fear, it’s not inspiring to say, Hey, this could be transformative. We’re not totally sure there’s a huge amount of challenges that are very perilous and hard to face, but we could do it, you know, you wanna get in with us on this uncertain thing. It’s much more effective to say, listen, the meat industry is a trillion dollars, we’re gonna get a big chunk of that and it’s happening now. You want in or are you gonna be left behind? And so I think because of that rhetoric, which is very present in the press, these companies have put themselves in a position where it’s hard to talk honestly about that. And I think that’s where the story came in.

Alex Shirazi (06:15):

I wanna mention that some of the feedback I’ve gotten was diversity is is definitely a good word for it because we have folks that are anti cultured meat saying this is an awesome article. And then folks that are totally invested in the industry saying this is an awesome article and I think it’s important to have content like this journalism like this because it shows that this is like laying out the facts and you definitely did your research there. I want to go back to what you said about people saying this is like a a meat industry piece. And I agree it definitely doesn’t seem like that and in a couple parts you even say that we do need to make global change and you mentioned the big environmental report that came out recently for the types of journalism out there that does push one way or another that is heavily biased and, and this is really coming from a personal standpoint. What is the best way to sort through that our audience, you know, how did they kind of sort through something that might be leaning heavily towards the meat industry or heavily towards another direction?

Joe Fassler (07:20):

I would even take a step back from that and say that I think the media really needs to rethink the way it reports on emerging industries. And this is a great example of it. I mean I don’t, I don’t know that I necessarily see a lot of meat industry friendly journalism out there. The media loves meat industry exposes and I think the media also loves startup stories. And so I I, I don’t know the, I’m necessarily seeing journalism that somehow prioritizes the talking points of the meat industry. I think I do see a lot of journalism that is advancing the talking points of the al protein industry and I think that happens for reasons that are unintentional and well-meaning for the most part, but I think really need to be addressed. And it’s one hope that I have for the piece that can be the beginning of that conversation.

Joe Fassler (08:12):

I think part of the reason that happens is we do live in a time of enormous technological change and everyone knows it and everyone on earth is experiencing it to some degree. And I think that there’s this narrative that’s taken hold that like everything is changing and 10 years from now things are gonna be totally different than they are now. And anything’s possible. And to an extent I think that’s true, but it’s also resulted in this really uncritical sort of stance in a lot of journalism where the media is just like, look at this hot new shiny thing, whether it’s cultured meat or self-driving cars or whatever and they sort of unintentionally play into this inevitability narrative even if those things are still very far away. And I think think that’s irresponsible. So one specific way that it happens is largely the way that the general media reports on cultured meat is through the lens of investment because that’s easy, right?

Joe Fassler (09:05):

It’s concrete, it’s newsy and it’s something that’s happening all the time. It’s like okay, this company just raised $40 million, this company just raised $140 million. Now Tyson is investing in a cultured meat company. You know, all of these headlines taken together, they kind of create this impression that this is a booming industry. And to an extent it is, it is growing relative to itself. But what the media has not done is really shown that investment doesn’t necessarily mean anything that investors invest in companies for all kinds of reasons, often just to hedge their bets or because they have fomo because someone else did it. And some of the off the record conversations I’ve had with people within the industry, they’re like, listen, investors do not do their due diligence. Like some of them like couldn’t pass a biology class, like they don’t know what they’re doing, what they’re interested in is the shiny prize and they also know a lot of their investments are gonna fail, right?

Joe Fassler (10:02):

That’s the whole venture capital model is you invest in 10 companies and nine fail and one of them grows 10 x and you’re good by simply reporting on investment as though it’s some kind of indicator of the meat industry being on the way out or of the viability of this technology, I think is incredibly misleading. And I think part of the reason journalists do that is because the science when it comes to this stuff is very complicated. And it took me months to try to even get a grasp on some of the basics. You know, I think folks have just sort of avoided doing that work, but I, I hope that can change. I hope that we can no longer decouple the investment story from the scientific story because ultimately they’re gonna come together and ultimately they are the same

Alex Shirazi (10:46):

Thing. You’ve done a very good job of really linking to all of the kind of critical articles and really documents that you cover and you do get pretty deep, which is really exciting. And for those of you that are watching or listening, there should be a link directly to the counter article from Joe in the show notes. And so if you haven’t looked at it already, it’ll be right there. You mentioned that the media is spinning it one way or another and the article does cover in quite detail the the TEA or the techno economic analysis from GFI. And I wanna just ask that we know that GFI is huge advocate in this space and very bullish on this technology and in many ways part of their, their mission and I am definitely one to say that they’ve done really great things and are continuing to do great things for the industry. But everybody in the industry does know that they are kind of there for the mission of reducing animals in the food system. I guess when we’re looking at the open philanthropy TEA and the G-F-I-T-E-A, throughout your conversations and interviews with folks, was there really anybody that says, well of course GFI is gonna be pushing towards this direction because that’s their mission. Any kind of feedback like that?

Joe Fassler (12:09):

Yes, I think, and I would say also as well with Open Philanthropy that did the much more robust T-E-A-I-I think within the industry, open Fill is known for being slightly more skeptical of cultured meat, though they have been a big investor in some plant-based companies and is very aligned with the mission of cultured meat. So I did talk to some people who, who aren’t necessarily in the piece and, and I talked to a lot of folks who, you know, it’s a long story and they just didn’t end up appearing in the piece. But one, one attitude that I did hear is like, yes, like we expect to hear this from open fill and we expect to hear this from GFI. And in a way these are two unsurprising conclusions from two organizations who have a broadly understood reputation in terms of where they sit. The difference though is that I just, I personally felt that the level of detail within the open fill report to me it was like a roadmap to this industry.

Joe Fassler (13:04):

I read it and I suddenly started to think differently because it really does grapple with specific biological and engineering problems. And I haven’t talked to anyone who has in a convincing way told me they can solve these problems. In fact, everyone said yes, Dave Humbard, the author of that report essentially got it right. And these are the challenges, right? And the GFI report, it’s just not as detailed and it does do things that for instance, like saying okay, in order for the cost to be viable, the cost of growth media or of proteins or whatever are gonna need to come down. But it doesn’t say how that’s gonna happen or what the challenges might be. And so in that way I found just the Humbard report to be much more compelling and clear. That said, I’ve, I’ve spent a lot of time on the phone with folks from GFI and they assure me that they wouldn’t try to promote this technology if they didn’t feel it would work.

Joe Fassler (14:04):

And I have no reason to dispute that. I believe that they do feel that these challenges, while admittedly somewhat forbidding, are ultimately solvable and are kind of new. One of the big kind of areas of disagreement here that’s in the story is that as fancy and newfangled and scientific and futuristic as cultured meat sounds, we’ve actually been culturing animal cells for a really long time. The drug industry does it all the time. Vaccines that we’ve all put in our bodies have been produced using that method. And the debate that I was kind of straddling is, does that mean that if the pharmaceutical industry has hit up against these challenges and they can’t do it at any bigger size because ultimately they don’t wanna grow the cells, they wanna grow the things that grow with the cells, the cells are essentially a waste product. Does that mean that they are an accurate indicator of what the challenges are? Or if when the ultimate goal is food, does that suddenly unlock all these new ways of thinking and these new approaches that might be transformative? And I still think that’s an open question, but that’s where these two reports are really different ’cause this stuff isn’t new and the challenges are very well established. It’s just if approaching it like food can bring some new ingenuity and new parameters to the table to, that might change the situation as we know it.

Alex Shirazi (15:22):

There’s an example that the industry uses a lot and it’s an example that I think you’ll either love or or hate. And that example is electric cars, right? And so we’re starting to see electric cars on the road. I’ll be a little bit more specific, we see Teslas on the road, but for a long time and and even now the amount of Teslas produced compared to some other auto manufacturers only was a very small percentage. And over time technology improved. And of course there weren’t these kind of technological barriers that we didn’t believe would happen with electric cars maybe 20, 25 years ago. We felt that there were these technological barriers, but we have overcome that and debatably we can say that electric cars are a success in the next wave of the future. Would you say that you can see cultured meat overcoming some of these challenges? Whether it is either the, for example replacing FBS or even scalability from a standpoint of contamination. Do you personally feel that through time, maybe not by 2030, but through time we would be able to overcome these challenges and the only meat we would have could be cultured meat?

Joe Fassler (16:37):

I’ve heard a lot of criticisms of that argument. So one of them is that electric cars are not biology and cells are, and biology does have hard limits. There’s only so much you can do. And so I’m not sure it’s a great parallel in that way. And when we have seen new technologies explode, if you wanna talk about Moore’s law, right, it has to do with semiconductors and how many it can fit on a microchip and it’s not really dealing with cells which are live and really have needs that are fixed. You know, you can mess with them, you can play with them, you can even genetically engineer them. Although that creates all kinds of cultural and regulatory issues that I don’t think these companies are eager to wade into. They’re just a really different animal. They’re literally an animal. And I’m not sure that it’s good parallel in that sense, but even if it was, I think that again, and this is maybe where I’m more talking about the media than I am talking about the industry, but this inevitability narrative for cultured meat to reach price parody with conventional meat prices would have to fall faster than semiconductors fell during like the boom times that Moore’s law describes they would have to, to essentially cut prices in half every two years, which is Moore’s law, right?

Joe Fassler (17:54):

That still wouldn’t be fast enough to reach price parody by 23. You know people all the time they look at this and they say, well look at the way you know of semiconductors has fallen, this would actually have to beat that in order to reach price parody by 2030. So that would just be an enormous undertaking that by the way isn’t just about growing cells, but it’s about scaling up entire sub industries to support this industry. And my piece, I talk about the need for feed and amino acids and how there’s just not enough of that stuff out there to really supply a growing cell cultured meat industry. These bioreactors don’t exist at the volume that would be needed. So there’s all of these industries that would need to scale up all at once a vast undertaking. And I think the questions that remain are one, are investors really gonna have the patience once they figure this out that it’s not around the corner because it’s, it’s just not.

Joe Fassler (18:46):

I think we, we may all taste it in our lifetimes, you know, certainly cultured meat as a blended product or as a niche product is on the horizon. But in terms of meaningfully taking on market from the meat industry, when investors figure out that it might not be in 10 years, it might not be in 20 years, it might be longer. How much of an appetite are they really going to have to continue to fund this? And how much of a foothold will companies really be able to gain? The other question is, how much money can we afford to put into such an unproven technology when we have so many dire problems at this very moment right now? And there are things that we do know that work already. We know what we need to do to address climate change. If that’s the rationale, there are a lot of things we can do that don’t have anything to do with cultured meat.

Joe Fassler (19:36):

And I think the third aspect of it, cultured meat isn’t gonna work unless we do certain things anyway. So one of those things is creating vast amounts of renewable energy. If we don’t do that, the environmental aspect of cultured meat doesn’t make sense, right? By GFI zone numbers, we have to have renewable energy for this to be a climate friendly product. It could be worse than some forms of meat production without renewable energy. So given that that’s a baseline requirement, what if we first start to, to put our energy into that? You know, I think that’s a criticism that’s hard to avoid. And you can argue, can’t we do two things at once? Yes we totally can, but on the other hand there is a limited amount of political will right now we’re fighting over what our climate policies should look like, how many trillions we can afford to invest in infrastructure and as politicians are wrangling over every dollar, every bit counts. You know, it is a zero sum game to a certain extent. So I don’t have the answers to these, but I wanted to pose these questions and I hope the debate will start to focus more on timelines and priorities that are realistic so that we can together try to find the best way forward.

Alex Shirazi (20:46):

One kind of really important thing that you highlighted was that the industry and GFI specifically is trying to get public funding into the sector. And I think what you mentioned makes a lot of sense is that there’s only so many dollars we can put in different places and we know for a fact that energy is one of the things that we do need to put those dollars towards. I think that’s interesting. I think that when we look at the article, I felt like we almost had a follow up within the story when you did start bringing in folks like Justin from Wild Type and I think George from Vow in Australia also wrote a follow up and their take was really that we are not producing to replace all the fish or meat in, in, in the world and it it is gonna be this kind of niche or luxury product. And sushi is already a luxury product once the wild type facility tasting facility opens up. Is that something you would be interested to, to try? Would you be interested in trying the, the cultured meat there? Yeah,

Joe Fassler (21:49):

I would love to. I think this stuff is fascinating. I think the science behind it is ingenious and I think it, it opens up questions that I’m really interested in just as a writer and as a journalist. Like what does it mean to eat meat without slaughter? What does it mean to eat animal cells that never lived in the way that we think of animals living? What are the implications of this? I’m fascinated and intrigued by it. I think there’s a lot of really charismatic, talented people in this space who are unbelievably interesting to listen to. And yeah, I don’t think cultured meat is bad. It’s not my place to say that. I think it’s fascinating. I would eat it without hesitation, but I, I do think we should have realistic conversations about if what this is gonna be as a niche product for, you know, Americans who want more options and can afford to pay for them.

Joe Fassler (22:41):

Does it really make sense to hype them as a climate change solution? And if not, then where do we go from there? Because we do know that we need to eat less meat. We do know that the traditional meat industry has way too much of an environmental impact and it needs to be addressed. But what other means might we have to do that that might not be as shiny or as science fictional or as sexy as cultured meat and might be important. I mean if, whether that’s talking about crop subsidies or exploitation of workers or all of these things, land issues, right? That, that allow the meat industry to exist as it is today. Those are politically difficult fights, but I think they’re conversations that are worth having and sometimes these new technologies suck out all the air in the room because they’re so interesting. But ultimately they’re technological solutions to what are fundamentally political problems and therefore not fully the right tool for the job.

Alex Shirazi (23:34):

Would you say that the advancements that we’re making in plant-based meat would be a good direction to follow or perhaps put more government dollars towards

Joe Fassler (23:45):

The, the issues there? I think it’s clear that these products are scalable in a way that cultured meat products are currently just not, would be impossible for cultured meat products to produce. Even at that scale. There’s a lot of issues with it. You know, I, I think on the one hand, sure it’s great and societies have been producing forms of artificial meats for a very long time. This also isn’t new. I still think there are open questions about how environmentally friendly really are these products, how healthy are they? That wasn’t part of my piece. So that’s not something I’m fully up on at this moment. I think that conversation is totally worth having. I just, I think it should happen in the same kind of way that’s nuanced and interesting and not just focused on, hey, you know, Carls Jr. Sells the Impossible Burger. Now let’s write another piece about that

Alex Shirazi (24:34):

As we begin to wrap up. There’s another topic which I don’t believe was covered in the piece related to naming and right now the USDA/FDA has a open call for public comment regarding naming and you used the term cultivated and I think also culture cell cultured in the piece. What are your thoughts on kind of directions of naming?

Joe Fassler (24:58):

Mostly I’m a fan of synonyms. ’cause In a long story like this, you just don’t wanna say the same thing too many times. And so our style guide is to say cultivated or sell culture. We use lab grown in the headline even though it’s technically not part of our style because it is a term that I think has the most currency at this moment in terms of, oh okay, I understand what this is for the average person. And I’m surprised honestly how little mainstream understanding there really is a fist. I hear people all the time, they hear lab grown meat and they think that’s what the impossible burger is. They don’t get it. And there’s not a very robust public conversation really around what those differences are. I mean we have this term alt protein, but an impossible burger and cell cultured burger from a company doing that are completely different technologies with radically different implications and they actually don’t really belong together in many ways. That all is interesting and so I’m kind of agnostic on what it should be called. I think we sort of will settle on something eventually. You know, I think cultivated makes a lot of sense. I think cell culture makes a lot of sense. Maybe someone will think of something else. I sort of don’t care. But what I would like is a more robust conversation around what it actually means and what the implications are because I still think that it’s a conversation that’s not being had in mainstream circles as much.

Alex Shirazi (26:19):

I think you, you even mentioned it on the call, but based off of our data, two of the names that do score the highest are artificial meat and synthetic meat. I totally agree with you that having honestly lab grown meat in the title, although sure we have different reasons within the industry why we don’t call it lab grown meat. It is kind of the most direct way to explain what this will be about.

Joe Fassler (26:44):

Yeah, and even something like artificial meat, I did a different piece a few months ago about Impossible Foods. I think very mischievous. And I say that in an endearing way, use of the term meat provocative maybe is better than mischievous. I think they’re trying to say this is meat and representatives from the company have said this is meat. It’s just meat made from plants. And, and there is some semantic precedent for that, right? Like you can say like the meat of a walnut, you don’t hear it, but it’s technically language a a use of the term that has been in practice before. And so these plant-based companies might also call themselves artificial meat. So I think semantically stuff is gonna get really interesting and I have no dog in that fight, but I simply just look forward to, to being an observer.

Alex Shirazi (27:25):

Now that the article has been out for about a month, is there anything that you would’ve added to it or maybe changed a little bit, even if it’s just kind of something small? There

Joe Fassler (27:37):

Are certainly some aspects of this that I didn’t have time for that I’d like to get into. I’m interested, I don’t wanna say too much about that because it’s work I still might do. But I’m interested in the alpha aspect, which is not at all touched on in the piece. And there’s some aspects of the sterility conversation that I might have gone into more detail about, which is really interesting. A big part of this is just the debate around how as septic are these spaces going to need to be and how much is the threat of, you know, an errant virus or bacteria gonna have the ability to shut down these plants. And the folks who cleave more towards the pharmaceutical end of things say, listen, like the idea of this being like a brewery, or I even heard some people say, oh, it’s just gonna be like a bread maker on your countertop and you’re gonna grow meat there.

Joe Fassler (28:22):

They find that laughable, they find it absurd. That said, there’s plenty of folks within the industry who say, no, look, the brewery model is, is our goal and we’ll get it to be like a commercial kitchen and that’ll fly. And I think that remains to be seen. So I’m fascinated by that debate. I’d like to do more with that. But yeah, I’m, I’m not going to go away as far as this topic is concerned. I think it’s is such a fun thing to write about ’cause it is so potentially transformative even if that radical potential is never fully realized. And maybe it will be. It’s so tantalizing and I get the appeal. I, I get why people wanna talk about it. I get why folks wanna devote their lives to it. I, I really do. But I think the role, you know, that I play and that we play at the counter is to be the check on that optimism, especially when there’s so much money sloshing around. It’s just really easy for unrealistic promises and pledges to start to get out there.

Alex Shirazi (29:15):

And thank you. And the counter for all of the work that you do, you could find the article linked below on the counter and we’ll have a direct link to that. You can also get in touch with Joe through the counter website. Joe, are there any last insights that you have for our listeners? And is there, you mentioned the counter is a nonprofit, is it something where listeners can make donations to?

Joe Fassler (29:36):

Yeah, we are reader supported and we’re always looking for new members to support our journalism. That can be a one-time donation or a recurring donation. And what’s great about that for us is we really are an, an independent voice. We rely on philanthropic organizations and everyday readers to publish our journalism. And so we can take the time that it requires to do a story like this, which it took me maybe four or five months to really focus on this. It’s not a luxury a lot of for-profit publications have because they’re so driven by clicks, they’re so driven by eyeballs. We kinda look at it the other way, right? It’s if we do the right story, then we’ll get the eyeballs. We don’t need them. We want impact, but we’re not monetized by the number of page views we get. And so we can do a story like this that takes a lot of very careful reporting that takes many months, but hopefully, I hope, you know, can be the beginning of a new phase of the conversation.

Alex Shirazi (30:34):

Joe, thank you so much for being with us today on the Cultured Meat and Future Food Show.

Joe Fassler (30:39):

My pleasure, Alex. I’d love to talk anytime.

Alex Shirazi (30:41):

This is your host, Alex, and we look forward to seeing you on the next episode.