Just, known for its plant-based mayo and eggs, will start culturing Wagyu beef cells in 2019.
Credit: Vichie81/Getty Images

No matter what you call it–cultured meat, lab-grown meat, clean meat–the process of producing meat through science instead of through traditional agriculture is rapidly emerging as the likely future of the meat industry. The excitement surrounding plant-based brands like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meats have proved a market exists for more environmentally-friendly alternatives to traditional meat: Cultured meat would appear to be the most sensible convergence of this research-based trend and replicating the meat experience with actual tissue.

Plenty of companies around the global are already working on bringing cultured meats to market—we’ve covered ones like Memphis Meats and SuperMeat—but another big name has just entered the race with an intriguing twist on the beef they plan to produce: Just—the California-based company that has built a reputation producing plant-based versions of mayo, egg, and other items—has announced it’s partnered with a farm in Japan to attempt to sell cultured Japanese Wagyu beef.

The partnership is with family-owned producer of Japanese Wagyu beef Toriyama, as well as the farm’s international supplier, Awano Food Group. “Through this first of its kind partnership, Just will develop cultured Wagyu beef from Toriyama cell lines and Awano, Toriyama's export agent with clients around the globe, will market and sell the meat,” Just explained in the announcement. “As with any other product, the first step is an extensive research and development period followed by scale-up, testing, regulatory approvals and availability to the public.” Just says that it hopes this project will mean that, in the future, more restaurants will be able to serve more Toriyama Wagyu beef at lower price points and with less environmental impact.

“For decades, the Toriyama family has paired science and skill with a passion for achieving a superior flavor for all the meat they produce. Precious few have had the chance to experience umami Wagyu and we hope this partnership allows more restaurants to share Toriyama beef and its story in a new, exciting way,” Josh Tetrick, co-founder and CEO of Just, said in a statement. “I’m thankful that Toriyama has entrusted our team with this project.”

However, seeing as no cultured meat brands are currently on the market, in many ways, this announcement creates more questions than answers. Foremost, how do we even know that the renowned quality of Wagyu beef can be replicated in a lab? Is simply working with Wagyu cells enough to recreate the Wagyu beef experience? And even if it is possible, what sort of timeline are we looking at for such an ambitious goal?

As should probably be expected with so many massive unknowns, a Just spokesperson wasn’t able to provide a ton of specifics. “The agreement was just signed a few weeks ago but we hope to begin sourcing cells in early 2019,” he told me via email. “In the meantime, we are still working on our first commercially viable offering, a chicken-based product, that we hope to sell to a high-end restaurant (or restaurants) soon. Chefs are excited to begin working with our cultured chicken and we’re making progress with regulators in various jurisdictions to allow this historic sale to occur.

“Our work with Toriyama wagyu cell lines will occur in parallel to the research we’ve been doing on a range of cell lines from other species,” he continued. “A growing number of startups are pursuing various types of cultured meat and it is likely that we’ll begin to see more products enter the market at a small-scale in the next few years. Mass consumer availability of cultured meat products is still years down the road.”

So for now, the vision of a clean meat version of a Wagyu beef steak is not that far off from building your first rocket while discussing landing on the moon. But at the same time, if you are going to culture beef, why not start with cells from some of the best cattle out there? And we eventually did land on the moon, so why not dream big?