You may love eating meat but hate the effects of conventional meat production: environmental damage and food products containing residues of antibiotics, fecal matter, pathogens, and other nasties. If you are into low-carb, high-fat (LCHF, aka Banting) you’ve probably fielded a barrage of criticism about what it is doing to the planet. (There’s a perception LCHF means lots of meat but that’s a myth. It is no heavier on meat than chicken and fish.) Now an innovative US food company is moving rapidly ahead with ‘cultured’, synthetic meat that looks and tastes just like the real thing. Here, Food & Beverage reporter Brendan Cole looks at the process that claims to be healthier, and that is more sustainable than conventional animal agriculture’. It is touted as ‘the future of meat’. It may even be a path to more ‘ethical’ Banting, even as it is a detour on the road to the LCHF emphasis on ‘real’ food – as close to its natural state as possible. – Marika Sboros
By Brendan Cole
The reality of commercially viable synthetic meat has come a step closer: earlier this year Memphis Meats in the US announced its advances in this area of biotechnology to produce a product that has the potential to hit the supermarkets within a few years.
There has been significant progress in developing artificial meat over the past few years. The notion of producing meat in a laboratory sounds more science fiction than fact …
However, this is an area of food production that has gained a lot of attention in recent years. It appears to be gaining increasing support in the industry as a serious alternative to conventional meat production for the future.
The idea of artificially-cultured meat, otherwise known as in vitro, or synthetic meat, is derived from the field of tissue engineering that involves producing muscle fibre from cells using a growth stimulant. Although the technology to achieve this has been available for some years now, the prohibitive cost and relatively small scale of production currently achievable have been limiting factors in any industrial-scale production of synthetic meat products.
‘If synthetic meat doesn’t look like normal meat, if it doesn’t taste like normal meat, it’s not going to be a viable replacement’
The realisation of this technology has been developing slowly over the past few decades. Early patents for the production of synthetic meat were issued during the late 1990s, while NASA has been experimenting with the production of in vitro turkey and goldfish cells since 2001 as a potential way to feed travellers on long-distance space missions.
But the idea of synthetic meat actually goes back much earlier than this. In fact, Winston Churchill is remembered for his prediction of its viability published in an article in the Strand Magazine in 1931 when he stated presciently: “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”
The first public demonstration of the viability of artificially-synthesised meat took place in August 2013 when the a lab-cultivated beef burger was cooked and eaten at a news conference in London by scientists from Maastricht University in the Netherlands. The project was led by Prof Mark Post who claimed it could revolutionise the food industry and help save the planet.
The Maastricht research was backed financially by Google founder Sergey Brin and the technique for growing a beef burger from stem cells was notoriously dubbed the “frankenburger”.
The Maastricht burger consisted of bovine muscle tissue cultivated from stem cells that were then incubated in a nutrient broth until they multiplied many times over, creating a sticky tissue which was then bulked up. The burger consisted of about 20 000 thin strips of muscle tissue and produced at a cost of about 250 000 Euro! Given these huge costs, there was little doubt that the process would take years before it could be considered to be a technically or commercially viable alternative to conventional meat production.
But technological progress is not linear; it tends to emerge in leaps and bounds, and in February this year the commercial production of synthetic meat took a giant leap forward when an American cultured-meat company, Memphis Meats, made its global debut.
The company uses a different technique from traditional in vitro meat synthesis. Using a bioreactor process they claim to be able to grow real meat faster. Using foetal bovine serum from unborn calves to initiate the process, animal cells that have the ability to regenerate are isolated and provided with oxygen and nutrients such as sugars and minerals. Synthetic muscle tissue can be harvested from nine to 21 days once the process gets underway in the bioreactor tanks.
Memphis says it is planning a range of products using recipes from award-winning chefs and the products will be available commercially within five years.
Memphis Meats CEO Uma Valeti, a cardiologist turned ‘meatpreneur’, says the company’s product is “absolutely the future of meat”.
“We plan to do to the meat industry what the car did to the horse and buggy,” he says.
Valeti emphasises the sustainable aspect of their product over conventional meat production:
“Our concept is simple,” he says: “Instead of farming animals to obtain their meat, why not farm the meat directly?
“To that end, we’re combining decades of experience in both the culinary and scientific fields to farm real meat cells – without the animals – in a process that is healthier, safer, and more sustainable than conventional animal agriculture.”
Memphis Meats follows hard on the heals of Modern Meadow, another American commercially driven synthetic meat producer. According to their website, Modern Meadow views cultured animal ingredients as a “huge opportunity to deliver healthy protein to a growing global population”.
Modern Meadow initially created a niche for themselves using stem cell biotechnology to create sustainable, lab-synthesised leather for commercial goods.
A key driving factor behind the effort to create artificial meat is the growing awareness of the questionable environmental sustainability of conventional agricultural meat production to feed an exploding world population.
More than 60-billion land animals are currently required to supply the demands of six-billion people for meat and leather. By way of example, a normal hamburger patty requires 3 kg of feed grain, 200l of fresh water, just under seven square metres of grazing and crop production space, and just over 1000 joules (1036BTUs) of energy, while releasing over 6kg of carbon dioxide.
‘Many people consider lab-grown meat repulsive at first. If they consider what goes into producing normal meat in a slaughterhouse, they might also find that repulsive.’
The consensus is that this is not sustainable for the future, particularly in view of increased meat consumption in the developing world and an estimated global population increase to over 9 billion by 2050.
Currently, we consume over 300-million tons of meat every year. Given the estimates of the world’s population by the middle of this century, this figure could rise to 500 million tons.
The future of synthetic meat as a commercially viable alternative to traditional meat production will rely heavily on government support. Another factor will be to convince meat-loving consumers to accept synthetic meat as a viable and palatable alternative to conventional meat.
In a BBC interview, Helen Breewood, who collaborated on the Maastricht “frankenburger”, succinctly summed up the challenge, saying that if synthetic meat “doesn’t look like normal meat, if it doesn’t taste like normal meat, it’s not … going to be a viable replacement”.
But, she added: “A lot of people consider lab-grown meat repulsive at first. But if they consider what goes into producing normal meat in a slaughterhouse, I think they would also find that repulsive.”
Despite the financial, technical and marketing challenges, those driving the synthetic meat sector say technological advancements will allow this process to become commercially competitive within five to 10 years. They believe synthetic meat will hold greater appeal for consumers through greater awareness of the negative ethical issues surrounding commercial meat production and its impact on our dwindling and pressured natural resources.
Valeti believes cultured meat will “completely replace the status quo and make raising animals to eat them simply unthinkable”.
- This article was first published in the May issue of Food & Beverage Reporter