If it walks, talks and tastes like chicken, is it one? That’s the question Josh Tetrick (pictured above), CEO of Eat Just, a food tech start-up based in California, wants to answer. The company recently made news for two reasons: one, it’s working with Proterra Investment Partners Asia to build a US$120 million plant-based protein facility in Singapore and two, it received regulatory approval last month to sell its Good Meat cultured chicken meat. For the latter, the company worked with 1880 Singapore to serve it on the club’s menu.
We spoke to Tetrick on his plans for Eat Just, his reasons for choosing Singapore, and how he sets the company apart from the other plant-based options out there on the market.
Why did you choose Singapore as the location for the US$120 million (S$158 million) facility?
Singapore has long been a leader in innovation, from information technology to biologics to now leading the world in building a healthier, safer food system. Eat Just’s partnership with Proterra to build and operate our company’s first-in-Asia and largest plant protein production facility would not have been possible without the Government of Singapore providing an enabling environment for the project with support from the Singapore Economic Development Board. Besides creating a robust ecosystem for food innovation, Singapore has strong IP rights protection and a highly skilled talent pool, and is a critical node in the network of greater Asia, which consumes more animal protein than anywhere else in the world.
Why did you decide to tackle chicken as your first meat product?
Chicken is the world’s most consumed (and fastest growing) meat. Chickens also consume more feed collectively than other farmed animals. Today, over one-third of the ice-free land on Earth and tens of millions of acres of rainforest teeming with our planet’s most diverse life forms have become fields of chicken feed.
(Related: Are plant-based meats just a fad?)
What was the process like in getting approval for the chicken bites in Singapore?
Over the course of two years, our team of scientists, product developers and regulatory experts prepared extensive documentation on the characterisation of our cultured chicken and the process to produce our products. We included details on the purity, identity and stability of chicken cells during the manufacturing process, and a detailed description of the manufacturing process that showed that harvested cultured chicken met quality controls and a rigorous food safety monitoring system.
We demonstrated a consistent manufacturing process of our cultured chicken by running over 20 production runs in 1,200-liter bioreactors. Safety and quality validations also proved that harvested cultured chicken met the standards of poultry meat, with extremely low and significantly cleaner microbiological content than conventional chicken. The analysis also showed that our cultured chicken contains a high protein content, diversified amino acid composition, high relative content in healthy monounsaturated fats, and is a rich source of minerals.
Broadly, we complied with the Singapore Food Agency’s food safety requirements for the assessment of novel foods and a distinguished panel of international scientific authorities in Singapore and the US confirmed that our cultured chicken was safe and nutritious for human consumption.
The problem with plant-based and lab-grown food options is the prohibitive cost of R&D, hence the more expensive retail price tags. How do you envision solving the problem of pricing?
Like any technology, the most effective way to reduce cost is scale. When you produce 100 million units of a product, the cost will be lower than when you produce 1,000 units. As both cultured meat and plant-based eggs scale to tens of millions or hundreds of millions of units, the cost will come down naturally.
We’ve made great strides on cost reduction for both of our platforms. For example, we’ve increased the protein yield for Just Egg, which means we can extract more protein from the mung bean than ever before. For our Good Meat cultured chicken, our costs have dropped by 3x over the past year as we’ve scaled up ahead of Singapore’s landmark regulatory approval for the product. To achieve our mission, we must be below the cost of conventional chicken, which we expect to happen in the years ahead.
What are your plans for Eat Just in Singapore and the rest of Asia?
Singapore is going to be a critical hub of manufacturing for Eat Just’s plant-based egg and cultured meat products for years to come. We’ve seen an incredible amount of consumer excitement in Singapore about both areas of our business, and we’re thrilled to further grow our business presence here. More broadly, we’re focusing on China, Korea, Japan and other countries in the region where consumers are seeking more sustainable, healthier food. Our platforms provide that.
How do you compare yourself to other plant-based companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods?
We have a lot of admiration for any company trying to make our food system better. We focus on two technologies – making eggs from plants and making meat from animal cells instead of by raising and slaughtering them. Both processes and products distinguish us from other alternative protein companies, and that’s how we stand out.