Yilmaz Bora got the idea for his company, Primeval Foods, while watching an Eater video about Aska, a two-Michelin-starred Nordic restaurant in Brooklyn. In the video, chef Fredrik Berselius makes quenelles of caviar, inspects a live king crab, and forages ginkgo nuts. But the thing that caught Bora’s attention was the bird. “It was not a chicken, but a bird,” he said. Actually it was a quail, aged and cooked medium-rare, and served dead-bird-style, with the feet still attached. “The owner said he was serving hundreds of them each week,” says Bora. As a vegan, this was unappealing but amazing to him, and it made him realize food that emphasizes a raw connection to nature excites a lot of people. So he started a company making cultivated lion meat.
Okay, so there were a few steps in between, but Berselius leaving the feet attached to his quails clearly evokes a more rustic, caveman-like relationship to meat. A claw sticking out of the end of a leg reminds you you’re eating a dead animal. It either disgusts you or taps into a primal human instinct. Bora thought about the logical conclusion — if humans are excited by the visceral image of a quail claw, they’re probably even more excited by meats like lion, zebra, and giraffe, things that are both socially and legally taboo. What if there was a way to get meat-eaters to eat those things without actually harming animals?
Primeval Foods specializes in reproducing meat from wild animals. Cultivated meat is different from plant-based meat — rather than mimicking the texture and taste of meat with other ingredients, cultivated meat is grown from cells in a lab, resulting in a product, at least according to these makers, identical to meat taken from a live animal.
Bora isn’t wrong. The idea of eating “exotic” meats like tiger and elephant — basically anything that falls outside of what is inspected and regulated by the USDA, and is instead left to FDA or state and local regulations or just not regulated at all — has consumed the collective palate before. Multiple restaurants have gotten in trouble for putting lion on the menu, which is technically legal to kill and eat if it’s captive in the U.S., although still widely frowned upon. Clearly, people are curious.
The promise of both plant-based and cultivated meat companies is essentially having our steak and eating it too. It’s being able to save the planet without making any changes to our habits, and in fact, maybe adding even more meat into our diets without the guilt of knowing it required an animal to die and many poorly paid workers to process, and took a disproportional toll on global emissions. We spoke to Bora about cultivated meat, exotic animals, and whether that promise is even possible to fulfill.
Eater: Tell me a little more about the creation of Primeval Foods. What are you trying to do with the company?
Bora: So I had a venture capital fund in London [Bora is a managing partner at Ace Ventures]. We were investing in plant-based vegan start-ups, but at one point I started to think, “This isn’t helping any animals, so we have to do something different. We have to do something bold because another fake meat company is not going to make people vegan. It’s just monetizing the vegan community.”
And I’m also a vegan, by the way, so I started to think, “What can I do differently?” I started to think maybe we should try cultivated exotic meats, so the people with a toxic masculine attitude, the climate deniers, the hard carnivores, might ditch eating traditional slaughtered meat if they try this approach. People are going to seek out exotic meats, and by doing it with cultivated meat technology, there’s no psychological barrier to trying those.
You mentioned toxic masculinity and this very bro attitude of like, “I’m going to eat meat all the time.” Why do you think people with that mentality would be attracted to more exotic meats like this? Why would that convert them rather than, say, a product like Beyond Meat, which mimics a beef burger?
I think it’s about sociological and psychological aspects of eating meat, because for hundreds of years eating meat was equated with being masculine. Man eats meat, stuff like that. At this point you cannot eat a lion, because there is so much opposition to eating an endangered animal [Editor’s note: the lion is listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature]. And there’s what I call the “carnivore’s dilemma,” where it’s okay to eat some animals, it’s okay to be friends with some animals, and it’s okay to just watch some animals. But when you put the word “cultivated” and the technology behind it, it’s okay to try them.
What animals are you aiming to recreate, and what was your methodology in choosing which animals to introduce?
At this point, just to start off, we were focusing on Instagrammability, and the lion is the most popular wild animal on the earth. So we are going to start with lion. But in the long run, the big cats have a unique amino acid protein profile because they move a lot. And they have big, big muscles, and they’re carnivores so they have great contents of protein when you compare them with the chicken, pork, and beef.
Also we’re thinking about zebra, giraffe and elephant, but you will see [these] in the long run because it’s a novel technology, a novel methodology, and there are specific things called cell lines. Cell lines are one of the most important things for [this] technology right now. In the long run, having efficient cell lines will show us which we want to focus on.
Can you tell me more about how these are created? Because in my mind, somebody could potentially go out and buy a pork chop, and then create a cultivated pork chop, and then do a side-by-side taste test to see if those are similar. And as you said, that really isn’t available for lion right now. So what are you doing to recreate this flavor?
In the cultivated meat technology, we only cultivate simple aspects like fat or protein. But there are other components, like the tendons in the meat, the fibers, the blood, the sensory experience, the flavor experience, the smell, when you cut it with your knife, that experience. I think it’s impossible to replicate all of this in cultured meat technology.
For the exotic animals, our brains don’t have any background data about eating a lion for taste. So we are very flexible about creating a flavor and sensory experience about it. We will start with restaurants in New York City where the chefs have the ability to create wonderful foods. And that’s how you will have your initial meeting with the lion meat. It’s going to be cooked by a chef, not a raw product you’ll buy in a supermarket.
But if I go to one of these restaurants and I order a lion steak, I have no preconceived notion of what lion tastes like. That presumably means that your company could make it taste like whatever wanted, right?
For the taste, it’s a copy-paste in the molecular and DNA structure. Just copy and paste it in the cultivator.
Where are you getting the DNA?
It’s in cells.
But where are you getting the lion cells?
We sourced it from live captive animals for the big cats. For zebra, we sourced from an exotic meat market. But eventually, we will source the cells from wild and native animals rather than captured ones.
For the captive animal, does that mean like zoos? Can you tell me where you are sourcing them from?
It was like a sanctuary [where] people are allowed to just visit and take photos of them, but it was not like a commercial zoo. It was like a rich person who owns some exotic animals and he made a sanctuary for them and we sourced it from them. It’s in Ankara, Turkey.
And for the exotic meat market, I guess that means that for zebra you are engaging in the exotic meat trade, if you’re getting this meat in order to recreate those cells. Does that make you feel conflicted in any way, that you’re attempting to create this vegan food company, but you’re still going to an exotic meat market to get some products?
It was just one time. If you think about 80 billion farm animals slaughtered each year, it was just once. And we have to do it, because there’s no other way to do it at the moment.
The goals of many cultured and plant-based meat companies are to get heavy meat eaters to cut down or give up meat entirely, because what people are worried about is giving up something they really love. But given so few people have eaten lion meat or zebra meat or elephant meat, are you worried that someone eating a cultured lion steak is going to inspire them to go out and eat the real thing?
If someone takes a flight from the U.S. to Africa, slaughters a lion, and cooks it, it won’t taste good; I can guarantee you it will be the worst meat-eating experience because [the animals] are not domesticated. The same applies to the people who slaughtered cows thousands of years ago, but they did it for nutrition because it’s a calorie-rich food. It took thousands of years to perfect it and create wagyu beef as they made it in Kobe, Japan. But we will accomplish it in just a few years, thanks to cultivated meat technology.
A recent report said that “fake meat” production will not end the climate crisis — that highly processed alternative proteins may be worse for the environment, that large corporations are buying up alternative meat brands, and that so far increased alternative proteins have not reduced meat and dairy consumption. What do you make of that?
Helping to fix the climate crisis is one of the main goals of Primeval Foods. There are lots of points I agree with in that report. But for the environmental impacts of cultivated meat, according to an independent study from the University of Oxford, cultured meat could be produced with up to 96 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions, 45 percent less energy, 99 percent lower land use, and 96 percent lower water use than conventional meat. Many more independent studies show that cultured meat can help fight the climate crisis. So it’s not a question of if; it’s a question of when.
To have a meaningful and long-lasting impact, we need to target carnivores rather than vegans; I believe that should be the whole point of launching an alternative protein company. Since vegans are already vegans, making products for them won’t make any impact on animals and the environment. What makes cultivated meat so unique is that it is real meat rather than plant-based meat. So cultivated meat provides the opportunity to reach a brand new demographic because some people will never ditch eating meat despite its negative environmental, health, and animal welfare effects. At the end of the day, we will see cultivated, plant-based, fermentation-based, and traditional meat in the market, but I believe traditional [meat] will have the tiniest share.
Since this is cultured meat, it’s based on the real thing, on real cells, but I feel like it opens up all these technological possibilities. Do you think there would ever be an option to create cultivated meats based on animals that have already gone extinct?
If they went extinct in the last decade or the last two decades, I think it’s possible to try it. In theory, it is possible, but for something like dinosaurs I don’t think it’s possible.
What does your timeline look like for producing these products and getting them into restaurants?
We were planning to have a tasting event in New York in one of those Michelin-starred restaurants. But we postponed that event. Right now we’re building a team, a core team. We’ll have the tasting, and after that we’ll wait for the regulation. The USDA and FDA have been working on regulating cultivated meat since like 2018. If they approve, maybe next year; we’re waiting for regulation to go to market.