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How Close Is Lab-Grown Meat to Being on Fast-Food Menus?

A recent study found that 66 percent of people are willing to try lab-grown meat, and 46 percent are willing to buy it regularly. If such a large swath of the population has no problem wrapping their lips around greasy fake meat, surely that means we’re not far from being able to order it at restaurants, right? Not quite. We talked to Sam Oches, the editorial director of QSR Magazine, a business-to-business publication that reports on the restaurant industry, about all the things that currently stand between lab-grown meat and the fast-food chains like McDonald’s and Burger King that are responsible for slinging most of the country’s burgers.

It Can’t Cost $2,500 A Pound

First and foremost, the price needs to come down. Yes, the price of lab-grown meat has fallen 300 percent over the last five years, but it’s still a long way from being as competitively priced as the cuts that the cattle industry offers. A pound of lab-grown Memphis Meats, for example, costs $2,400 to produce, while the cost to produce a pound of meat from a dead cow costs just 45 cents (thanks in part to the cattle industry ballooning the size of a single cow). “I don’t know what’s going to have to change in order to make it cheaper, but until fast-food companies can serve it for $5,” Oches says, “it’s not going to be a realistic thing for them.”

The Consumer Has to Prove That They Really, Really, Really Want It

Though recent data shows 60 percent of Americans are reducing their consumption of meat-based products (a majority of which say the change is permanent), fast-food restaurants can’t afford to be reactionary — especially for as big of a change as lab-grown meat. They want to make sure the trends in consumer demand are long-lasting, not just a phase. Unlike niche gastropubs, Oches explains, “It’s important to remember that major fast-food chains are in pretty much every community in America. That includes communities that aren’t interested in technology, or in so-called futuristic processes for their menu. They’re in communities where people like to eat the things they hunt and kill personally.”

That said, competition has forced fast-food chains to make quicker decisions than in the past. Case in point: McDonald’s offering delivery through Uber Eats. “It used to be that it would take McDonald’s, whenever they changed anything, about five years of research before they did so. Now, that’s gotten to be about six months. I spoke with McDonald’s CEO earlier this year, and he said that when they did Uber Eats, it went from idea to national rollout in less than six months.”

As for lab-grown meat, Oches explains it would take a “significant movement of young people” to say “we don’t want to eat animals anymore, but we also don’t want to give up meat; therefore, we’d like to eat lab-grown meat.” Such was the case with McDonald’s delivery option: More and more citybound millennials were ordering food via delivery apps (e.g., Grubhub, Seamless and Postmates), forcing McDonald’s to catch up.

It Has to Be on Brand

With the demographics of their locations in mind, fast-food chains need to consider their core consumers and brand identity. White Castle, for example, recently introduced the Impossible Burger, a plant-based hamburger from one of the leading plant-based meat companies, Impossible Food. “I was surprised by that,” Oches says. “I don’t think White Castle’s core demographic lines up necessarily with target customers of the Impossible Burger.”

Being a smaller chain, White Castle has the ability to try out different things, but “even though they can do it, doesn’t necessarily mean they should,” Oches adds. “Brands do have to honor their core demographic and their brand identity, and White Castle has a very defined demographic that they typically cater to, so I’d be curious to see the feedback on how that’s gone.” (FWIW: As of June, White Castle was pretty happy with its decision.)

There Has to Be A Lot More of It

Right now, meat labs are still in research mode, churning out a single burger at a time. In the same vein as price, that’s a long way away from being able to provide, as Oches puts it, “14,000 restaurants in the U.S. with this product that theoretically could sell dozens if not hundreds per day, per location.”

“So say McDonald’s says they’re going to put lab-grown meat on its menu. Who’s going to provide that lab-grown meat?” Oches asks. “The sheer scalability of something like that is astronomical; it’s a huge undertaking to get to a point where you can provide a company the size of McDonald’s something that’s completely new, and no one else is providing.”

Oches explains that the recent trend of locally-produced food is a good example of the struggles scalability can bring. “Chipotle ran into a wall of not being able to scale local foods,” he says. “Their entire supply chain was a mess, because they were trying to do this food with integrity, but it’s hard to do that with 2,000 restaurants. When you consider the sheer quantity of beef necessary to serve all the Big Macs and Quarter Pounders that Americans eat every day, lab-grown meat isn’t going to replace that with a snap of the fingers. It’ll take years to make any kind of dent like that in the supply chain.”

In Other Words, It’s Gonna Take Some Time

According to Oches, the restaurant industry follows a specific timeline when they dabble in new trends. “Traditionally, you see food trends first introduce themselves at the top: Fine-dining chefs start playing around with it, and then they trickle down to fast food,” he explains. “When avocado became a huge ingredient, you saw chefs working with it first. Then you started to see the casual-dining restaurants doing it, then family restaurants like Denny’s and iHop, then fast-casual, and finally, the bigger fast-food chains.”

Plant-based meat products have already taken this step thanks to David Chang, who put the Impossible Burger on his menu at Momofuku, and “suddenly it was a big deal.” “We’ve seen in the last decade some of these companies like Beyond and Impossible go from being a fringe product to something that even White Castle has on their menu. That would suggest those companies are acknowledging that plant-based burgers are very much a big part of the future,” says Oches.

“But the expediency with which these plant-based burgers came to the menu at major fast-food chains would suggest that these companies are prepared to move quickly when these types of products hit the mainstream,” he adds. “I know McDonald’s is talking about it.”

The difference with lab-grown meat then is that it hasn’t found it’s David Chang-like evangelist yet at the celebrity chef and/or Michelin level. Still, it’s hard to see how that won’t happen at some point in the future. After all, lab-grown meat isn’t a tiny menu item that could come and go, it’s an industry-changer. “All of these major players are watching it, at least with interest to see what happens. Because 10, 15, 20 years from now, it could have an absolutely significant effect on their sales. And once restaurants see their guests demanding it, then yeah, I think the industry will jump on board in a big way.”