There would be no need for veterinary drugs or hormones, and no risk of bone accidently making it into our dinners. The benefits would include a reduction in greenhouse gases and animal waste, and greater availability of animal protein for the planet’s growing population. This is the world of cultured meat, sometimes known as clean meat or in-vitro meat.
Within three to five years, we may well be eating sausages, burgers or nuggets made from cultured meat, and all without the need for genetic manipulation. But what is cultured meat and what are the challenges for industry?
What is Cultured Meat?
Cultured meat is created from a starter culture. The starter culture contains cells taken from a live animal, painlessly by biopsy. The first challenge is to decide which type of cells to use. Muscle cells seem like the perfect choice but they may multiply very slowly. Stem cells will multiply rapidly but because these have not yet become a type of cell, they may not lead to cultured meat. The compromise has been starter cultures made from myoblast cells.
The second challenge is which growth of culture media to use. It must be cost-effective and preferably free from animal products. Currently, the starter culture is placed on a media of fetal bovine/animal serum. This is, however, obtained from unborn calves and is therefore incompatible with the objective of being free from animal products. The industry is therefore looking for a viable replacement.
The next challenge is to create a three-dimensional product using a scaffold. It should be edible, animal-free, and must be capable of expanding and contracting like normal muscle tissue. Scaffold materials can be alginate, chitosan or collagen. The scaffold and starter culture is placed in a bioreactor.
However, to truly create the necessary flavor and texture required to replicate meat, the cultured meat will also need connective tissues, such as collagen and elastin, as well as fat cells.1
Between the late 1960s and 1990s many laboratories worked on the problem of creating synthetic meat. They proved that cultured cells could be grown into various structed or semi-structed components and, in 1995, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of in-vitro techniques for the commercial production of meat.2 Today, many laboratories, including NASA, are involved in the production of cultured meat, and there is even a patent held for in-vitro meat production by the late Dutch researcher and entrepreneur, Willem van Eelen.
The turning point came in 2013, when Dr. Mark Post of Maastricht University presented a cultured meat hamburger to the public in London. This hamburger took 2 years to grow at a cost of about USD 330,000.3 From this point on, industry began adopting this technology with commercial expectations and it is hoped that by 2020 the cost of a burger will have fallen to USD 10.4
Why the World Needs Cultured Meat
The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) publications, “World Livestock in Food Security”,5 and, “How to Feed the World in 2050”,6 predict that to feed the estimated global population of 9.1 billion people in 2050, meat production will need to increase by 70% to 470 million tons. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that livestock agriculture uses 30% of the land and 70% of all arable land. In addition, it is estimated that 15,000 liters of fresh water are required to produce one kilogram of beef and that meat production accounts for at least 15% of all greenhouse gases.
The planet therefore doesn’t have either enough land or water to sustain the required increase in production needed to feed to projected population increase. Cultured meat will provide a viable alternative, reducing land and water usage, in some projections by as much as 90%, and, even if it will not result in a reduction in energy costs, it will reduce the amounts of methane being released from cows and sheep.
Commercial interest stems not only from the need to feed a rapidly expanding population but also the opportunities afforded by this new technology. Currently it takes ten weeks to grow the ten billion cells needed to make one burger. Commercially, however, if there is sufficient capacity, it should only take twelve weeks to grow enough cells to make 100,000 burgers.
The commercial possibilities are remarkable. With companies building meat products starting with the cell, they will be able to control the amount of fat and the quality of that fat, including more unsaturated fats to help reduce cardiovascular disease while creating a burger with the right texture and flavor.
Currently, animal welfare, hormones and veterinary drugs are all major concerns for the food industry but, with cultured meat, these would be eliminated. Since cultured meat is relatively sterile, pathogenic micro-organisms will also become less of an issue, except for post-process contamination.
For the food industry, the major advantage of cultured meat products, over vegetable alternatives, is that they are actual animal products but with many of the disadvantages removed.
Even before cultured meat products are available on the market, regulatory authorities have already begun to consider the possible ramifications of this new technology. Canada and the European Union will require the approval of a novel food application before the product can be offered for sale.
For novel foods in the EU, as per EU 2015/2283 that became effective January 1, 2018, cultured animal protein products will be placed in a similar category to nanomaterials – the technological innovation or specific production category. Companies submitting applications must demonstrate the safety of the product and its production. Their investment in these products’ development means they will most likely apply under the data protection provision, which offers five years proprietary protection. This procedure is simplified and more transparent, as all application summaries are listed on the European Commission web portal. Additionally, cultural animal products must also demonstrate their safety, of product and processing, at the commercial level meaning that such applications are still years away.
In the United States, this topic has already been hotly debated – on July 12, 2018, the FDA held a public meeting on foods produced using cell culture technology.7 The FDA is taking a scientific approach to this subject, looking at the hazards and safety factors needed. Much of the debate centers around what names will be allowed on packaging. While it is agreed the FDA will have jurisdiction over the technology to create cultured meat, authority over food safety and labeling will be controlled by the US Department of Agriculture Food Safety Inspection Service (USDA FSIS).
In May 2018, the State of Missouri passed Senate Bill 627 requiring any ‘meat’ that is vegetable derived or not harvested in traditional manner, such as that grown in the laboratory, to be identified on the label as such and not labelled as meat.8 The US National Cattlemen Association has been a keen supporter of the Missouri bill, stating it will protect consumers from fake meat. This organization has declared the threat from meat alternatives as one of its key targets and you can understand why: in 2017, the meat substitute industry was estimated to be worth USD 4.1 billion worldwide but by 2025 this is expected to rise to USD 7.5 billion. Currently, the US animal industry is not affected by the meat substitute industry, the average US citizen consumes 222 pounds of meat a year, but as populations grow and cultured meat becomes more readily available, this will change.9
The cultural meat debate is anticipated to take many years to be resolved – the next of the series of debates will begin at a USDA FSIS, US FDA joint meeting in October 2018.
The main barrier to consumer acceptance of this product category is that it is not natural, that it is laboratory made. In addition, another likely area of difficultly, at least initially, will be the cost and supply availability. Despite these concerns, major corporations and wealthy individuals are investing in this production methodology, in preference to developing insect based products. This is likely because cultured meat products will be more acceptable to western society.
There is also the environmental/sustainability perspective, that allows the consumer to have their animal product and know that it is more environmentally friendly then those from traditional animal husbandry and meat production methods. This environmental aspect became apparent in the US when the rain from Hurricane Florence caused at least 50 lagoons of hog waste to overflow and contaminate water and surrounding lands.10 There is also the question of waste produced during some slaughter operations. For example, Kosher production, where only 40% of the animals slaughtered are accepted as Kosher, and some parts of the animal are forbidden. So, this would have this positive impact on the environment.11
In some countries, it will be a question of whether sufficient animal feed can be produced to meet demand and whether this cost can continue to be realized.12 Another example is in China, where they have the outline of a plan to reduce their citizens’ consumption of meat by 50%. In this case cultured meat production can provide an alternative way to provide meat while also achieving reductions in emissions of the greenhouse gas methane.13 For cultured animal products, it may not be so much the acceptance of the product itself that will drive the market upwards, but the problems presented by the alternatives.
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1 Cultured Meat; Manufacturing of Meat Products Through "Tissue-Engineering" Technology
2 A History of Meat Eating
3 The Future of Meat
4 Cultured Beef Frequently Asked Questions
5 Livestock in Food Security
6 How to Feed the World in 2050
7 Public Meeting on Foods Produced Using Animal Cell Culture Technology
8 Senate Bills Nos. 627 and 925
9 What's Meat, Anyway? Missouri Label Law Says It Comes From An Animal; Some Disagree
10 Overflowing Hog Lagoons Raise Environmental Concerns In North Carolina
11 Orthodox Union: Cell Cultured Meat Could Dramatically Lower the Cost of Kosher Meat in Future
12 Why East Africa is Facing an Animal Feed 'Famine'
13 China Signs $300m Deal to Buy Lab-grown Meat from Israel in Move Welcomed by Vegans