Is clean meat the animals’ best hope? An interview with Paul Shapiro 

paul shapiroI have known Paul Shapiro since he ran Compassion Over Killing in Washington DC, together with his wonderful three legged dog, George. From that position, Paul went on to be a Humane Society of the United States spokesperson and vice president for thirteen years. Just this month (Jan. 2018), Paul came out with his first book: Clean Meat. How Growing Meat without Animals will Revolutionize Dinner and the World. In it, Paul chronicles some of the key people, companies, and technologies behind clean meat, or the idea of creating animal products directly from animal cells, without live animals. Paul provides the reader with a fascinating inside view of the startups that have been popping up in our social media feeds in the last few years: companies like Memphis Meats, Hampton Creek, Modern Meadow, Clara Foods, Mosa Meats, Geltor, or Perfect Day, who are all hurrying to bring products to market that might just mean the beginning of the end of animal consumption.
I talked with Paul about his hopes for clean meat, and asked for his answers to some common objections to the idea of eating meat without animals.

Vegan Strategist: Paul, your book got me even more excited about the possibilities of clean meat (not to say clean milk and clean eggs). First of all: what are you most excited about?
Paul Shapiro: I’m excited about it all, but, in all honesty, what would excite me the most would be a greater focus (in both plant-based meats and clean meats) on poultry and fish. The success of alternative milks and burgers is stellar, but even 100% displacement of those categories would affect less than 1% of farmed animals in the US. Statistically speaking, virtually all farmed animals are birds and fishes, so we need more replacement products for them. Fortunately, many of these startups are working on clean chicken, while Finless Foods is developing clean fish, too.

What in your opinion is the most critical factor for clean meat to succeed?
Not enough people buying this book! Just kidding. Seriously, there are key hurdles, from consumer acceptance to government regulation to technological barriers that could hinder the success of these start-ups. That said, every one of these companies is optimistic about overcoming such hurdles, and I outline why they feel that way in the book.

One of these technological barriers is the serum that is used to make the animal cells grow. Traditionally, this has been bovine serum. How are the alternatives coming along?
What we call acellular ag companies (those making milk, egg whites, leather, and gelatin) don’t need any bovine serum (or any other animal ingredients) at all. But the meat companies still use bovine serum for some meats, though not for others. They all know they can’t commercialize their products with that serum, both for financial and ethical reasons. The good news is that they’ve found non-animal alternatives to bovine serum that work (in fact, Memphis Meats’ Nick Genovese even published his serum-free recipe already), but the key is to find the most economical alternatives that will still cause the cells to grow into muscle quickly.

Assuming we can get past the technological hurdles: how easy or hard will it be to get governmental approval to bring these products to market?
That depends on the country and on the product. The path for the acellular ag companies seems a bit clearer, since there are already similar products on the market now. For instance, the rennet in nearly all hard cheeses sold in the US is produced through the same kind of synthetic biology which companies like Perfect Day, Geltor, and Clara Foods are using.

There are some really smart people, like Pat Brown of Impossible Foods, who still think clean meat is an unfeasible and stupid idea. The organization Givewell, as late as 2015, was not recommending investing in or donating to clean meat. Could they be right?
Sure, they could be right. I, of course, hope they’re not, and I also look at what experts in the meat industry think. Cargill has already invested in Memphis Meats. A major German poultry company just invested in SuperMeat. I presume they know what they’re doing. But there’s nothing inevitable or self-executing about the success of clean meat.

Some people – vegans especially – will say that we already have enough plant-based alternatives, which are getting better and better, and that we don’t have any need for clean meat.
If plant-based meats explode in popularity and make clean meat unnecessary, all of the clean meat companies will be thrilled, as would I. I love plant-based meats and tout them all the time. But many people profess to be wedded to actual animal meat. For them, clean meat could be a solution.
The problem of factory farming is just so severe that you want multiple solutions. Just as with the problem of fossil fuels, you don’t want just one alternative, like wind. You also want solar, geothermal, and more. Similarly, plant-based meats are a great solution to the factory farming problem, but you also want other alternatives, including clean meat, and, of course, whole foods plant-based diets, too.

clean meat book

There seems to be a big food trend in the direction of more authentic, more simple, more artisanal food. That doesn’t seem very compatible with clean meat, at first sight.
The key isn’t to get people who like “natural foods” to eat clean meat; it’s to get mainstream meat-eaters (which is nearly everyone) to eat it. And really, the current way we produce meat is so unnatural that growing it seems like a naturally preferable option. I might also point out how technology has helped us on a lot of other food sustainability issues. Take vanilla as one example: only about 1% of vanilla that we eat is “natural” vanilla, which is grown in rainforests. The rest is produced synthetically, allowing us to have the same vanilla taste and scent we crave for much lower costs.

What would you tell vegans who are critical of clean meat?
Well, clean meat is meant, in the first place, for mainstream meat-eaters, meaning nearly everyone. Some vegans will be fine eating it, but the surveys show that the less meat you eat now, the less interest you have in eating clean meat.
No one argues that clean meat is a panacea or that it addresses every single concern about meat. It is quite plausible though that it may spare billions of animals from torture and slaughter. All that said, sometimes as vegans we delude ourselves into thinking that the foods we eat don’t cause any animal suffering. For those who think that, I’d recommend becoming more familiar with commercial agriculture practices, including for the plant-based foods we vegans love.

It seems that in the evolution towards a better world for animals, business and entrepreneurship are getting more and more important compared to activism/advocacy. What’s your take on that?
I totally agree, and recommend this good essay by my friend Seth Goldman, executive chairman of Beyond Meat, on the topic. This is a big reason I wrote the book and am now moving away from conventional animal advocacy and toward food tech as a way to help animals. The animal advocacy movement can do a lot of good, yet I’ve increasingly come to the view that food technology is desperately needed to greatly accelerate the shift away from the factory farming of animals. Horses weren’t liberated from labor by humane sentiment; Henry Ford liberated them. Whales weren’t freed from harpoons by humane sentiment; kerosene helped render whale oil obsolete. Will clean meat and plant-based meats help do the same for farm animals? These questions are the driving factors for me to move my career more into the food tech space.

And you’re not the only one. The stories of the “business activists” in your book are fascinating and inspiring.
Yes. And it’s helpful to recall that these people are just people. They’re mere mortals like the rest of us. Many of them are young idealists who haven’t come to believe yet that they can’t change the world. And, as the saying goes, those who complain that they can’t change the world should get out of the way of those who are doing it.

How do you feel about big meat companies getting involved in this?
The faster meat companies become the purveyors of plant-based meats and clean meats, the faster animals will win. Fortunately, it’s already starting to happen.

What would you say to people who bring up anti-capitalist arguments?
I hear that argument and respect those who make it. But if animals must wait until the end of capitalism to be freed from factory farms, they’re going to be waiting a long time.

Apparently Hampton Creek’s foie gras might be the first product to reach the market?
Totally possible. It would be quite a story: the only foie gras that can be legally sold in California. It’d be quack-tastic!

What can your average vegan or vegan advocate do in this story? How can they help?
It’s a small but growing field! If you want to pursue a career in cellular ag, this page may be useful. If you’ve got an idea for a company and want advice about getting started, the Good Food Institute is the place to go. (It’s actually a great place to go for much more than that, too.) And, if you just want to be supportive, of course, touting the benefits of cellular ag and the start-ups profiled in the book on social media would helpful, too. They could use the support!

To learn more about Paul’s fascinating book, go to To know more about Paul, visit

What about GMOs and hi-tech animal food alternatives?

We’re living in very exciting times.

We’re on the verge of making milk without the cow,
cheese without the milk,
eggs without the chickens,
burgers without the beef,
leather without the bull…

In a lot of cases we’re not talking about imitations but about actually replicating, molecule by molecule, the original product (eggs, milk, cheese, meat…), so that our “alternative” can hardly be called an alternative any longer, but is a product that is chemically (more or less) identical to the original animal product.

hi tech animal products (1)

Obviously, doing stuff like this requires new technologies (like genetic modification) and hi-tech food development environments (labs, say). This is of course a far cry from the local, natural, organic, DIY food movement that is presently quite popular.

The vegan movement too is a bit divided over this. A big part believes our food should be as “natural” as possible, while another part doesn’t mind the involvement of high tech, including GMO’s, to make things better.

To me it’s quite obvious that the label “natural” doesn’t mean much. To simplify things – as is often done in the food movement in general – to something like: natural is good, processed/engineered is bad, seems quite irrational. I find there is little reason to entertain the general idea that what has been produced by nature is necessarily better than what humans make of it. There seems to be no reason why humans, in theory, could not do better than nature. Sure, when we try to improve on what nature provided us with, we need to experiment, sometimes by trial and error, and we have made mistakes and will make more. But that doesn’t mean we can’t ever get it right.

I’m aware of the potential political and social problems in giving food companies too much power, the problem of monopolies, of only big companies being able to develop certain technologies, of patenting, etcetera… But while these issues are very important, they are practical issues that are not inherent to the “naturalness” or “unnaturalness” of foods. It seems sensible, especially in the case of GMO’s, to separate two questions: do you have fundamental problems with something, versus do you have practical problems with something. If you fundamentally disagree with something (e.g. you believe that genetic modification is “unnatural” and therefore “wrong”) there’s no real solution for you in sight. If you disagree with e.g. genetic modification on the grounds that it creates too much power for certain (obviously capitalist) multinationals, that’s a practical issue of a totally different nature.

While we shouldn’t be naive, these practical issues can in theory be solved. A nice example of a high tech initiative that seems to be doing things differently is Real Vegan Cheese, which is a group of “biohackers” (a word which does a great job in showing the “unnaturalness” of their endeavours) trying to develop… well, real vegan cheese. They are crowdfunded and work out of two open community labs in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Personally, while I can see many potential or real practical issues with hi-tech food development, I don’t have any fundamental objections against hi-tech food. I basically support science and technology in reinventing animal products and coming up with alternatives, so that we can make of animal use a thing of the past.

Our movement’s newest asset: big money

“We have science, logic and morality on our side. It’s only a matter of time before we win.” 

The above quote is by Bruce Friedrich, long time and much appreciated activist, now working at Farm Sanctuary. I share Bruce’s belief that someday, we will win. I share his belief in the power of science, logic and morality. But I’m happy to see that lately, we’ve seen another factor at our side: money.

Not that the vegan movement didn’t have any money at all before, but today it’s kind of a whole new ballgame. For the first time, big money is being bet on vegan products. Companies like Hampton Creek, Beyond Beef and Impossible foods have raised literally hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital. Check out some others here.

For the first time, investors can see a big future for meat, dairy and egg alternatives. Given that the production of animal products will become more and more problematic on environmental grounds, and more and more unacceptable to people on ethical grounds, people like Bill Gates and Twitter’s Biz Stone have been opening their wallets. Google’s Sergey Brinn has invested in the research for in vitro meat by Mark Post in the Netherlands, and Google has recently made an offer to buy Impossible Foods.

The perception value of investors like these betting on meat alternatives is important: these guys are not stupid. If they see something in meat substitutes… well, it must mean there might really be something in it.

But other than mere symbolic or perception value, the millions of dollars these venture capitalists are making available, allow entrepreneurs to put together dream teams and acquire the best researchers, tech people and marketeers to develop and then market their new products.

developing alternatives

If you read some of the media coverage these new ventures are getting, you can see that the entrepreneurs are looking to imitate (and improve) meat (or other animal products) like never before. They want to make a product that is at least indistinguishable from the original animal product, but hopefully even better. And now they have the money, the brains, the technology to do so. Read about Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, Hampton Creek (egg substitutes) or Muufri (real milk, but not from animals). It’s fascinating stuff.

I think the importance of developing good alternatives for animal products cannot be overestimated. Meat still has a symbolic value (especially in emerging ecomomies), but as far as people choose to eat meat for culinary reasons, almost no one, I am sure, insists on putting pieces of a dead animal in their mouth. Rather, people are looking for a certain taste and texture. If you can imitate that taste and texture exactly (or improve upon it), and make the products healthier, more sustainable and cruelty free while you’re at it… there is no reason why we couldn’t get every omnivore to eat these “alternatives” rather than the “animal originals”.

There is no doubt that all of these developments happen within the classical capitalist framework, which is probably not the ideal solution. However, to call all of this nothing more than “vegan consumerism” which has nothing to do with ethics, is misguided. Making our society less dependent on the use of animals by developping alternatives (in food, research, clothing) is high priority. It is crucial for people to have good alternatives if we want them to be able to let their compassion flow.