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Lab grown meat: Know how cells become steaks and nuggets

Vegan meat

Upside Foods’ new trial product is often described as tasting like chicken. This comes as no surprise since the fillets are, in fact, chicken at the cellular level. But they are not sourced from a slaughterhouse. Instead, they are grown in bioreactors in an urban factory located in California, lab grown meat.

A little over a decade ago, only a few researchers were exploring the potential of lab-grown meat. In 2013, Mark Post, a biomedical engineer from Maastricht University, created the world’s first cultured beef burger, which reportedly cost $325,000. Since then, the development of such products has progressed significantly, with over 150 companies worldwide now working on cultured meat, including ground beef, steaks, chicken, pork, fish, milk, and even leather products.

The first approval

In June, US regulators approved lab-grown meat, making the United States the second country in the world to bring this food to the market. Two companies, UPSIDE Foods and GOOD Meat (owned by Eat Just), have received the green light to sell their cultivated chicken. GOOD Meat’s chicken has been available in small quantities for purchase in Singapore since 2020. It is expected that at least one product will be available in a US restaurant this year, even if it initially results in financial losses. Production plants are being constructed, and the industry has received $2.78 billion in investment, according to a recent report.

As commercial activity intensifies, researchers from various fields, including food science and medical biotechnology, are focusing on improving cell culture and refining other aspects of the process. The Good Food Institute (GFI), a non-profit organization based in Washington DC, has awarded $17 million in research grants to support the science behind meat alternatives. Tufts University has established a Center for Cellular Agriculture, and the United Kingdom has funded a Cellular Agriculture Manufacturing Hub led by the University of Bath.

The Arguments in favor

Advocates argue that cultured meat can help reduce the negative impacts of the world’s growing meat consumption. Livestock farming requires extensive land use and is responsible for approximately 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The consumption of red and processed meat has been linked to various health issues, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Furthermore, poultry farms can contribute to the spread of viruses like avian influenza and antibiotic resistance, while fish farms can pollute ocean waters. Globally, around 80 billion animals are slaughtered annually for human consumption, and the United Nations and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development predict a 15% increase in global meat demand by 2031 due to a growing affluent population.

In response to these challenges, the food industry is exploring alternative protein sources, including algae and insects. However, for those who prioritize the sensory experience of eating meat, cell-cultivated meat holds great promise. Even individuals who have been vegan for many years still crave meat, according to Mark Post. Thus, replacing meat with meat seems like the obvious solution.

Industry experts, however, hold differing opinions on the scalability, affordability, and overall value of cultured meat. While some emphasize the benefits of reduced land use and environmental impacts, along with more efficient meat production, others express concerns about energy consumption, technological development, and market viability. Currently, cultured meat products are significantly more expensive than conventionally produced meat. Replacing just 10% of global meat consumption would require the construction of hundreds of thousands of bioreactors. Marco Springmann, a food-systems researcher at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, is critical of cultured meat. He believes it is detrimental to health, food security, and the environment.

The Process

The process of producing cultured meat involves taking a biopsy from an animal, nurturing the cells in a nutrient bath to promote growth, inducing them to differentiate into mature muscle or fat cells, and potentially exercising the muscle cells to promote fiber formation. Some products, such as those offered by GOOD Meat, combine animal cells with plant materials to create meaty-tasting products. Other companies, like Aleph Farms, aim to create more complex structures, including steak.

The Challenges

The main challenges in the cultured meat industry remain the same as they were a decade ago: identifying the best starter cells, developing optimal nutrient sources for cell growth, and refining the manufacturing process. Cost is a critical consideration throughout these efforts. Nurturing animal cells is significantly more difficult and expensive than cultivating microbes, according to biotechnologist Paul Wood from Monash University.

A report from CE Delft, prepared for the GFI, presented various projections for the manufacturing of cultured meat. In an optimistic scenario, production costs could potentially be reduced to around $6 per kilogram, compared to a benchmark of $2 per kilogram for conventional meat. However, other studies are less optimistic, with one analysis suggesting that the lowest possible cost for cultured meat production in future facilities would be $37 per kilogram, making the products unaffordable as food.

The Solutions

To overcome these challenges, companies and researchers are continually refining each step of the meat-growing process. They are experimenting with various starter cells that grow at different speeds and densities, and produce different textures and nutritional profiles. For example, Mosa Meat uses muscle stem cells from cow biopsies to grow mature muscle fibers, although these cells have a limited division capacity. Regenerative biologist Ori Bar-Nur is exploring the use of a cocktail of small molecules to enhance the proliferation and differentiation of muscle stem cells, enabling faster and more cost-effective production of muscle fibers.

Another approach is to utilize “immortal” cell lines that can theoretically produce an endless supply of meat from a single biopsy. Israeli firm Believer Meats has published a study on its spontaneously immortal chicken fibroblast cells, which are easy to grow and can be converted to fat-like cells. The company aims to produce 10,000 tonnes of cultured meat per year, far exceeding the output of other cultured-meat factories.

While some researchers raise concerns about the safety of consuming immortal cells due to potential mutations and tumour formation, a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN concludes that the current scientific understanding does not support the likelihood of harm from these cells surviving packaging, cooking, digestion, and consumption. To accelerate research in cultured meat, the GFI has compiled a catalog of useful cell lines and partnered with a reagent company to store and distribute frozen samples. The catalog includes various fish species, which are easier to cultivate due to their tolerance to low oxygen levels.

A final word

The cultured meat industry is advancing rapidly, with companies like UPSIDE Foods and GOOD Meat gaining regulatory approval to bring their products to market. While there are challenges to overcome, including cost and scalability, advocates believe that cultured meat has the potential to address the environmental and health issues associated with conventional meat production. Ongoing research and development efforts are focused on improving cell culture techniques, refining the manufacturing process, and exploring alternative protein sources. Only time will tell if cultured meat will become a staple in our dinner plates.

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