Cruelty-free food Chicken king Wiesenhof invests in cultured meat

The German poultry giant is backing Israeli artificial meat startup SuperMeat in a bid to take the chicken out of its chicken products.
Quelle: Getty Images
No animals were harmed in the making of this burger.

From grilling like Americans in the summer to eating raw beef at breakfast, there is no question that Germany loves meat.

But even in the country of 1,500 sausages, Wiesenhof, its largest poultry supplier, is investing in SuperMeat, an Israeli startup that is flipping animal welfare discussions by producing artificially grown "meat."

The technology of using stem cells to grow meat has been around since the 1970s. The multipurpose seed cells are extracted from animals in a minimally invasive way and used to develop into muscle cells in a culture outside the animal's body. Unlike the natural, complex layered structure of muscle, cultured meats grow into thin strips. And they are incredibly expensive: At a taste-testing event in 2017 held by San Francisco-based startup Finless Fish, 1 kilogram of fish cost about $40,000.

SuperMeat thinks it can eventually make its product even cheaper than conventional meat. "Clean meat will require dramatically less resources to produce," the startup writes on its website.

Wiesenhof's investment follows a trend already seen in the US, where animal-product firms are looking for alternative protein sources. In 2016, Arkansas-based poultry giant Tyson Foods bought a 5 percent stake in the American meat replacement startup Beyond Meat.

Two-thirds of Germans say animal welfare is their top concern when selecting foods, but a third of Germans still eat meat every day.

The new strategic partnership between the German and Israeli companies kicks off with €3 million ($3.6 million) in seed funding to further develop artificial meat, bypassing animal welfare debates.

In 2012, Wiesenhof, part of the PHW Group, was hit by a series of scandals involving allegations of mistreatment of poultry. At the height of the controversy, the group’s CEO Peter Wesjohann was receiving daily hate mail, and animal-rights advocates were blocking entrances to the company’s headquarters in Visbeck in northwest Germany. The global nonprofit organization PETA voiced criticism of the company and posted undercover videos of alleged animal cruelty.

The scandals helped change consumer sentiments about meat consumption. Last year, a nutrition survey commissioned by the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) found that a whopping 66 percent of Germans regard animal welfare as their top concern when selecting food products. But Germans are not about to give up their beloved meats wholesale: Every third German eats meat every single day.

Not bloody, but rare.

Now Mr. Wesjohann, the third generation of his family to lead Wiesenhof, sees an opportunity. “With our know-how we want to contribute to the development of meat from cell cultures,” he says. The deal with SuperMeat ensures his company is strategically positioned to be a leader in the European market.

SuperMeat's US rival Beyond Meat is already cooking. Its fundraising round in December added another $55 million to the $90 million it previously raised from investors including Bill Gates, Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams, Tyson Foods and actor Leonardo DiCaprio. Former McDonald’s CEO Donald Thompson is on the board.

The California-based startup, like SuperMeat, wants to improve animal welfare and encourage sustainability, but also claims its product helps mitigate climate change: By producing beef substitutes they want to reduce the amount of cattle-produced methane, a huge greenhouse gas contributor that is linked to global warming.

Beyond Meat’s products can already be found in US shops, but SuperMeat needs to cook a while longer. Like dry-aging a prime cut, its production techniques take time to perfect, and it will be another three to five years before its test-tube chicken breasts are available in European supermarkets and Germans can look forward to guilt-free "real" meat on their plates.

Christoph Kapalschinski covers consumer goods, textiles and food for Handelsblatt. Christine Coester contributed to reporting and adapting this article into English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected]