Can you make meat without an animal? Hampton Creek is betting its future on it

Josh Tetrick has gone up against Big Mayo, the egg industry, Target and his own staff and board of directors.

Now, the 37-year-old entrepreneur behind Hampton Creek is vowing to beat a handful of food-tech start-ups to market a meat made without an animal.

“We’re about to sell a product before the end of next year,” said Tetrick, whose company says it has cultured chicken flesh in a lab, then mixed it with other ingredients to craft prototype chicken fingers.

“It’s not plant-based; it’s 100% meat,” Tetrick said, adding that the company believes it “can make chicken that tastes as good as the best chicken on the planet” — as well as beef or fish.

To get there, Hampton Creek rebuilt its board after the previous members exited en masse in June amid reports of acrimony over Tetrick’s leadership. Unlike the old board, the new directors are conspicuous in their association with mainstream, industrialized food and marketing.

The changes, announced last week, are the latest shape-shifting for a San Francisco start-up that vowed six years ago to revolutionize the way food is produced, starting with eliminating eggs from mayonnaise.

An early darling of environmentally conscious investors, Hampton Creek burnished an underdog image by fighting off international food giant Unilever, the maker of Hellmann’s mayonnaise, and the American Egg Board, over whether the company’s egg-less spread, Just Mayo, could be called “mayonnaise.” The company also reached a compromise with federal regulators that allowed it to keep both the “just” and the “mayo” on its label.

But Hampton Creek also has been dogged by reports that it secretly bought back its own products from retailers’ shelves, allegedly to boost sales, and that it sold tainted and mislabeled products to retailers. The latter anonymous accusation, which was not investigated by the Food and Drug Administration, nonetheless caused Target to drop Hampton Creek products.

Rocked by negative press, the company recently has taken the offensive, announcing a bolstered intellectual property portfolio that it hopes will vault Hampton Creek to a multinational manufacturer of “clean meat” — flesh cultured in a laboratory without the costly resources and unpleasant practices involved in raising animals.

An offshoot of science’s attempts to culture human organs, clean meat is a risky endeavor still burdened with unresolved technological issues for the handful of companies that have entered the niche. But a commercial success would reap immense payoffs, given the world’s escalating population, an affluence-driven rise in meat consumption and climate shifts that are exacerbating scarcity of the resources involved in factory farming.

Derided by some as a food company masquerading as a tech start-up, Hampton Creek — which has raised more than $200 million in venture capital — appears to be doubling down on its dual image by mapping out a research-intensive path while also acknowledging that making food has more in common with hardware than software.

“We’re a manufacturing company,” Tetrick said. “We have technology, but we manufacture food that people eat.... There’s just a set of capabilities and skills around that type of company that’s different than a software company, and we’ve tried to have a board that reflects more of that approach.”

Despite its strong environmentalist intentions, the previous board had only one member with deep experience in the food industry. The new board is composed of James C. Borel, a retired DuPont executive vice president; Larry Kopald, a Los Angeles branding expert who helped launch chicken McNuggets; Cliff Coles, a former RJ Reynolds/Nabisco food-safety executive; and Saudi Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal, chief executive of KBW Ventures, a 5-year-old firm that focuses mainly on infrastructure.

The company also bolstered its intellectual property, receiving a patent last week for its machine-learning platform that probes plants for molecules that can form the foundation of alternative food ingredients. It also acquired other patents related to the process of making cultured meat, the company said.

Even so, Hampton Creek will face enormous challenges manufacturing clean meat, or licensing such production out to meat companies, analysts say.

Although two companies, Netherlands-based Mosa Meat and San Leandro’s Memphis Meat, have grilled up taster-menu portions of clean meat in the last four years, none appears to be close to solving stubborn technological problems, let alone move from prototype portions that cost thousands of dollars per pound to a product that competes with slaughtered animals.

“I see it as something that’s really only going to be an interesting product for those who have disposable income and want to buy something that looks and feels and tastes right and solves what I call ‘First World problems’ like the humane treatment of animals,” said Sara Olson, an agriculture and food industry analyst for Lux Research.

“To think of Hampton Creek doing it in a year, I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but I don’t believe that it would be possible,” said molecular biologist Daan Luining, co-founder of the Cultured Meat Foundation, a Netherlands group that promotes government and academic research into animal protein. “The most-funded research groups in the world on tissue engineering haven’t been able to do this type of stuff.”

Luining, who has studied with the founder of Mosa Meat, said he “had a hard time pinning down” what intellectual property was protected by one part of the company’s portfolio — a patent held by Los Angeles entertainment industry executive Jon F. Vein, who now is listed as an advisor to Hampton Creek.

“They are just describing other people’s research, not really a process or anything new in this sense,” Luining said. “If this was really a patent and all the things they describe in here would be patent-enforced, they could sue almost half the world because every lab in the world uses these types of technologies to create a piece of tissue, in one way or another.”

Tetrick said there are “many levels” of intellectual property around lab-cultured meat, “but we own the foundational [intellectual property] around the process, around cell line development.”

“If you wanted to produce or sell a clean meat in Western Europe, Israel or Mexico before September 2024, we would work with you to license our technology,” he added.

It is not clear how far Hampton Creek has progressed relative to other companies. A promotional video released by the company implies the flesh used in its chicken finger experiment came from the cells of a feather of a single bird. A company spokesman clarified the chicken flesh was cultured using cells from several sources, and that the result was mixed with plant-based filler and breading.

The company hopes it can find plant-based compounds that would replace the medium most commonly used to grow animal flesh in a lab, fetal bovine serum. Making a meat alternative that still relies on an animal product undermines the justification for “clean meat” and is a non-starter for vegans, Luining noted.

Although it has interest in the U.S. market, Hampton Creek will focus heavily on the Middle East, where resources to raise cattle and poultry are scarce, Tetrick said.

Tetrick said his push to accelerate Hampton Creek toward a more multinational food-manufacturing niche was not a factor in the departure of the company’s previous board. The unusual exodus had left only Tetrick at the helm.

“We asked people to go,” Tetrick said. “People have voluntarily left along the way. In terms of the core functions of the company, we’re more or less doing what we’ve been doing for the last any number of years. It just depends what lens you look at that through.”

Hampton Creek still plans to file for an initial public offering within the next three years, Tetrick said.

“We’re not positioning our company to get a buyer,” he said. “We’re trying to do everything we possibly can to not just go public, but be around 100 years from now and really bring a needed change in the food system.”

geoffrey.mohan@latimes.com

Follow me: @LATgeoffmohan

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UPDATES:

2:10 p.m.: This article has been updated to clarify that the chicken tenders prepared by Hampton Creek were not derived exclusively from cells extracted from a single chicken’s feather.

9:40 a.m.: This article was updated with details about how the company made its chicken fingers and to clarify that it thinks it will be able to culture chicken meat that tastes as good as conventional poultry.

This article was originally published at 3 a.m.

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