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In the pantheon of quixotic scientific pursuits, it is right up there with the search for extraterrestrial life, the Loch Ness Monster, and cold fusion: kosher bacon. But that’s just what a startup in Berkeley thinks it may be able to create one day.
“I grew up in Israel and a lot of my family won’t eat pork products, so it’s an area of particular interest for me,” Eitan Fischer, the chief executive of the startup, Mission Barns, says. “Making the world’s first kosher pork ever, that would be exciting.”
It sure would be, although Fischer acknowledges it may require more time—and a number of favorable rabbinic rulings—to make good on that vision.
Mission Barns is one of a handful of fast-growing companies pursuing meat that is grown in a lab from cultured animal cells, rather than from raising and slaughtering whole animals. The idea is to create real meat, but in a way that is more sustainable, ethical, and healthy.
Among the best known of these competitors are Memphis Meats and Just, the company formerly known as Hampton Creek. Fischer and several other members of the Mission Barns team are veterans of Just.
A large number of other companies are pursuing “meat alternatives,” which are generally lab-grown or plant-based proteins that are processed to make them appear and taste like meat. Among the companies in that category are Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods.
But the majority of companies in both categories have focused on protein. Mission Barns’ focus is fat, which it creates from stem cell lines harvested from ducks, pigs, chickens, and cows. Fischer says the company decided to focus on fat because the biggest criticism of plant-based alternative meat has been the fact that it doesn’t have the same “juicy” taste and texture as real meat. He says these properties are largely the result of fat. In taste tests, people “significantly prefer a product made with real animal fat,” he says.
Mission Barns’ plan is to license its lab-grown fat to plant-based meat alternative companies so they can enhance their products. “We believe the way to do it is to partner with those with the infrastructure and scale who are already producing a lot of plant-based protein at low cost,” Fischer says. The company has also experimented with producing its own line of bacon involving a plant-based protein it developed. “We feel have the best alternative bacon out there, because we are using pork fat instead of coconut oil,” he says.
To further its growth, the company today announced that it has raised an additional $24 million in venture capital funding. The investors in the funding round include Lever VC, Gullspang Re:food, Humboldt Fund, Green Monday Ventures, and an unnamed European meat company. Others participating in the investment include Blue Ledge Capital, Prithvi Ventures, and Joyance Partners, as well as Global Founders Capital, Point Nine Capital, Better Ventures, and Cantos Ventures. London’s Air Street Capital is also a seed investor in the company, although it did not invest more money in this round. The latest financing means the startup has raised more than $28 million in venture capital funding to date.
Fischer says the money will allow it to build a full-scale production facility, with larger and more cell cultivators, the machines in which it grows its fat. It will also hire more scientists, engineers, and commercial employees. Currently the firm employs just 18 people, Fischer says, but it wants to rapidly expand that number.
And what about that kosher bacon? Well, it’s a work in progress, Fischer says. There are two big theological impediments: One is that in order for meat to be certified as kosher, it has to come from an animal that has been slaughtered according to religiously specified rules. But the cells Mission Barns uses to grow its fat are harvested from live animals, without killing them—in fact, that is one of the product’s main selling points for those who care about animal welfare and sustainability. Still, if the cells were taken from an animal that had already been killed in a kosher way, that would likely surmount that first hurdle. The other problem is that there are some rabbinic rulings that a food designed to fool people into thinking they are violating the religious strictures is not kosher, even if it would otherwise be. Kosher bacon might well run afoul of that view.
But Fischer is not giving up hope. He says the pathway to creating alternative kosher chicken, duck, and beef should be straightforward, and a number of rabbis have already endorsed the idea in theory, so long as the original cells are “sourced in a kosher context.” But where’s the bacon? “The pork side still requires more discussion,” he says. “There’s been nothing conclusive, but it hasn’t been ruled out either.”
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Mission Barns in the subhead and the amount of venture capital the company has raised so far.