Would you eat a hamburger or a chicken nugget made of meat grown in a laboratory?
Joshua Tetrick, co-founder and CEO of JUST, is betting that you will. The San Francisco-based company has been producing and selling non-animal versions of food, like mayonnaise, since 2013, and it's raised more than $310 million in venture capital.
Tetrick and his team have created products like Just Mayo by identifying plant-based alternatives to common animal products, like eggs, using a combination of lab experiments and machine-learning.
JUST is one of a handful of tech companies working to disrupt the meat production industry.
While many of its competitors are pursuing better plant-based meat substitutes, JUST is pushing ahead with so-called "clean meat," or lab-grown animal tissue that requires no farming, no feeding of livestock, and no slaughterhouses. Only a single sample from a single animal that's duplicated endlessly.
JUST and companies like it are poised to disrupt the livestock industry. So established players are turning to the government to help protect their turf.
The United States Cattlemen's Association, which declined to participate in this story, submitted a petition still under consideration by the United States Department of Agriculture asking that the words "meat" and "beef" exclude any products that "are neither derived from animals, nor slaughtered in the traditional manner."
Tetrick says accurate labeling will be essential when marketing his lab-grown "clean meat," which he hopes will transcend the vegan vs. carnivore paradigm.
"We don't allow the term 'vegan' to be used in our company," says Tetrick. "That word ends up turning off ninety-nine percent of people."
This isn't Tetrick's first fight with entrenched food interests.
When the company's first product, Just Mayo, appeared on the shelves of major retailers, the American Egg Board went on the offensive.
According to internal emails obtained by MIT researchers through the Freedom of Information Act, Egg Board members tried and failed to get Whole Foods to pull the product from its shelves and hired a network of writers to trash the product on food review sites.
Target stopped selling Just Mayo after receiving an anonymous letter about food safety, but a Food and Drug Administration investigation later found that the product was safe. Investigators failed to identify the author of the letter.
At one point, Egg Board members even discussed putting out a "hit" on Tetrick, with one member writing that he should get have his "old buddies from Brooklyn pay him a visit." The officials later told investigators that they were joking.
Whether or not consumers are ready for lab-grown meat is yet to be seen, and the company landed in hot water with the SEC in 2016 after being accused of buying its own products off the shelves to boost sales figures with the goal of raising more venture capital, though the company claims it was a quality control measure. No charges resulted from the investigation.
With JUST products in more than 20,000 stores, plans to release lab-grown clean meat onto the market by the end of the year at a retail price within 30 percent of that of traditional meat, Tetrick is optimistic about the future of the company and the global food system.
"In tomorrow's world, you can eat more meat, hopefully safer meat, even better tasting meat, without eating the animal," says Tetrick.
Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Camera by Alex Manning.