Some refer to it as “cultured” or “cell-based” meat. Others call it “fake” meat. What is it?
It’s a new technology to grow meat in the laboratory and it may show up in the meat sections of our supermarkets someday soon.
Cultured meat has nothing to do with its social standing. Rather, it is meat produced when cells from animals are “cultured” or grown under laboratory conditions.
Not to be confused with plant-based meat substitutes made from vegetable proteins, cell-based meat is grown from actual animal cells. So, it is an animal product, not a vegetarian option.
Why do we do need another method to produce meat?
Some say it’s to keep up with the growing demand for quality protein sources in our expanding world.
Others say it is an alternate way to produce meat for human consumption.
Is cell-cultured meat the same as regular meat? Depends on who you talk to.
Muscle fibres produced in the laboratory are the same as that found in a steak, say leading researchers in this technology from Maastricht University in The Netherlands.
Yet, they also say that they need to tweak the procedure to get the same nutrient content, such as iron, that is found in red meat.
Some groups have petitioned the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to better define the term “meat”, so we know if we are buying the traditionally produced type or the cultured variety.
Hopefully, we will see some labeling guidelines on these products before they show up in grocery stores.
And that may be a few years. Regulatory issues and cost (the first lab-grown hamburger patty cost a mere US$330,000 [RM1.375mil] to produce) could delay the introduction of cultured meat into our food supply for a while.
Are there any concerns with growing meat in the laboratory?
Depending on who you listen to, some groups say this method of meat production would result in less land and water use.
Other organisations voice concerns that growing meat in the lab would impact the environment more negatively than our traditional way of raising cattle as it would take massive amounts of energy resources to produce meat in this way.
Nutritionally, these products would be similar in some nutrients such as protein, and different in others. Scientists say they are looking into modifying the type of fat in lab-grown meat, for example.
Lastly, what will cultured meat be called? Is it real “meat” or a meat-type product?
That remains for either the US Department of Agriculture or FDA or both agencies to decide. For now, we can call it something new on the horizon. – The Monterey County Herald/Tribune News Service
Read Part 1
Chicken super-farms and Vitamin D
Large-scale commercial meat production, or factory meat farming, probably started with chickens in Delaware, United States, at a farm run by Mrs Wilmer Steele. Selling a batch of 500 broiler chickens in 1923 inspired her to devise new methods to intensify meat production – and by 1926, she had the world’s first indoor chicken super-farm with a capacity of 10,000 birds. The numbers and sizes of such large scale chicken farms expanded exponentially when Vitamin D was included in the birds’ diets – before that, chickens tended to be sluggish or even die off in winter due to lack of sunlight, but the addition of Vitamin D ensured that meat and egg production became a viable operation all year round. The rationing of beef during World War II and Howard Pierce’s competition for super-chickens colluded to make chicken the cheapest and most readily available meat in the world today. For more, read “The story of a super chicken”.
In Britain, factory farming started in 1947, when a new Agriculture Act provided farmers with grants to utilise new technologies in crop and animal farming. It was the period after WWII when the UN was still promoting food security by the “intensification of animal production”. Such intensification was mostly confined originally to chickens as they were the cheapest way to breed meat. However, newer techniques developed for other animals allowed the US and Europe to begin serious large-scale factory meat and dairy farming with pigs and cattle around 1966. This eventually led to practices such as CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) where huge numbers of animals are crowded together and fed with fattening grains, nutrients, antibiotics (and often growth hormones), with no opportunities to graze or exercise normally. These large-scale farms are now replicated around the world.
Clearly, such intensive methods to mass-produce meat and dairy have practically nothing to do with natural or even humane conditions for the animals involved. For example, confining hundreds of thousands of chickens in indoor factory farms is so stressful that their beaks are routinely sliced off to reduce injuries due to fighting. The birds also usually live their entire lives in a caged space smaller than a piece of writing paper.
The harsh concrete surfaces of factory farms often painfully deform the feet and skeletons of animals evolved to walk on soft soil. A sample of 34,000 pigs in the US some years ago found 65% had pneumonia-like lesions in the lungs – there is no indication whether this may be hazardous to humans. The use of growth hormones for speeding up meat production is well-known and still continues in many countries despite concerns about dangers to humans. This practice is banned in the EU. Note that almost all factory meat farms routinely ban visitors in case they take pictures or write about the conditions inside.
More worrying is over 80% of the world’s production of mammalian antibiotics (including for humans) are given to livestock – this is to ensure the animals can resist the bacteria inherent in crowded, often unhygienic conditions in factory farms. But we all know bacteria can evolve to develop resistance to such overuse of drugs, and some superbugs which affect humans now cannot be treated with conventional antibiotics.
As mentioned, most agricultural land is now used to grow feed for animals, even though cereals provide two to 10 times and legumes 10 to 20 times more protein than animals for the same land area. This anomaly is even more bizarre in developing countries where land for meat production often crowd out land for human food crops.
The growth of factory farms over the last century is staggering. Globally, around 50% of pork, 40% of beef and 70% of poultry are now derived from factory farms. In the US, the statistics are even more sobering: around 95% of pork, 78% of beef and 99% of poultry are supplied by factory farms.
The only explanation for the explosion of such a pitiless business is the expanding and seemingly insatiable human demand for meat. Such vast, inhumane factories can only exist because the meat industry keeps offering meat consistently at prices around or below consumer reference points – and hence it is all about economics, not nutrition or even common sense (because the environmental damage is not sustainable). For more about reference points, please read “What we think of (when we think of food)”.
Anthropocene Epoch – what’s next?
As stated earlier, this new epoch may end up being the shortest in Earth’s history. The damage to the planet caused by human practices (eg. global warming, desertification, ocean pollution, etc) is already potentially mortal and any immediate remedial action can only be helpful. Although many people are not aware of it, the geophysical impact of factory farming is a significant issue. The irony of course is that there is no requirement for such overwhelming meat production – it only leads to a vicious cycle of ever bigger factory farms to reap economies of scale so as to be able to sell meat at lower prices than competitors. The other irony is that over-consuming such meat is also probably detrimental to health in several ways. This may be evidenced by many of the current generation of Americans having a lower life expectancy than the previous generation.
It therefore makes sense to break away from the maddening crowd, if only because a lot of research has indicated that over-consuming animal proteins/fats can reduce human lifespans and alter the death pattern for entire populations. For example, prior to 1950, the main causes of mortality in China were measles, tuberculosis and senility (diseases related to old age). Since 1985, the main causes of death are cancers, strokes and heart disease – and as in other countries with a similar death pattern, it has been linked to an increase in meat consumption.
You know by now that a flexitarian diet just means reducing the amount of meat and replacing it with non-meat substitutes, with no rules attached. However, if one is really interested, then some additional comments may be added, as follows:
Humans need only a pretty small amount of daily protein, around 0.8g per kilo of body weight. So someone weighing 70kg needs only 56g of protein a day, though of course most people eat rather more than this. This is also fine as long as they do not have any chronic kidney disease.
Of this optimal amount of protein, try to limit animal proteins to 5% or less of your total calorie requirements. There is roughly four calories per gram of protein. So if your daily requirement is, say, 2,000 calories, try to limit animal protein consumption to 25g a day. The rest should be made up of non-animal proteins.
For the same daily calorie requirement, carbohydrates should be 50% to 55% of the total, so it means roughly 250g to 275g of carbohydrates.
The rest should be vegetables with lots of soluble and insoluble fibre in any proportion you like – plus of course, fats, especially those with Omega-3 fatty acids, so as to offset the Omega-6 oils normally present in most modern foods. A good balance would be four or fewer parts of Omega-6 to one part of Omega-3.
However, I confess I have personally never strictly followed the dietary suggestions above, mainly because I enjoy eating good food (and drinking wine) too much. So it is just a guideline for anyone curious. My opinion is if everyone would cut their meat consumption by 30% to 50% or more, that would already be an excellent step towards keeping the Anthropocene Epoch alive a while longer. It is also remarkably easy to do, even for meat-loving Germans, especially with ultra-modern foods – see “A modern food story – Part 3”.
Curious Cook appears on the second and fourth Sunday of the month.
- Ecovative, a startup that made a name for itself with its sustainable packing and building materials made from mushrooms, is planning a pivot into lab-grown meat and other areas.
- The company wants its mushroom scaffolding to be a central material for startups aiming to create everything from clothing to meat without slaughter.
- The material could have uses for plant-based “meat” companies like the Bill Gates-backed bleeding veggie burger startup Impossible Foods, too.
A startup that makes environmentally-friendly packaging for IKEA is planning a big transition into the realms of lab-grown meat and beyond.
Ecovative – which made a name for itself by inking deals with brands like IKEA and Dell to swap styrofoam containers for packaging grown from fungi – now wants to use its mushroom-growing capabilities to become the backbone of several manufacturing efforts, including plans to make meat without slaughter.
It might sound like an odd pivot. But a critical obstacle for the “cell-based” (or “clean”) meat industry is taking the raw materials for meat – lab-grown cells from the fat and muscle tissues of chickens, pigs, and cows – and crafting them into materials that mimic the complex structure and texture of a marbled steak or sinewy chicken breast.
Several startups in the space claim to have succeeded in making prototype products that take the form of sausages, burgers, and meatballs. But these products involve essentially smashing together a mix of muscle and fat tissues – not creating actual pieces of flesh that mirror the real thing. What could be missing is a good scaffold, a delicate structure on which the cells can thrive.
Ecovative wants its mushroom technology to be that scaffold.
Using a new platform which the company is calling MycoFlex, Ecovative will be able to tailor a foam-like product it makes from mushroom roots (or mycelium) and craft it into a variety of end materials, from performance foams for clothing and shoes to cellular scaffolding for lab grown meat. In April, the company worked with licensee and fellow startup Bolt Threads to make the first MycoFlex-enabled product, a leather-like bag made with material it called Mylo.
Most recently, Ecovative has also been trialling growing animal cells on the MycoFlex platform.
“The key thing mycelium does is go from a single-celled organism to a 3D structure in space,” Eben Bayer, Ecovative’s co-founder and CEO, told Business Insider. “We’ve been growing animal cells on it and they’ve been growing really well.”
If it works, the partnership could help usher in the first slaughter-free products with the texture and structure of steaks and fillets.
The mushroom’s unique structure is hard to find elsewhere in the vegetarian-friendly organism kingdom. Plants can only do so much. But fungi knows no such boundaries.
“If you look at plant scaffolding, you’re limited to the geometry of something like a spinach leaf,” Bayer said. “With mycelium, we can make a sheet that’s many feet long and however thick. We can control the density. It’s this massive scaffold you can grow relatively inexpensively.”
Ecovative’s mushroom-powered structure could have uses beyond the cell-based meat space as well. In the plant-based food arena, for example, mycelium could be used as the foundation for new, even meatier versions of already popular vegetarian items like the Bill Gates-backed “bleeding” Impossible Burger or the Beyond Burger.
Those companies could essentially “use our scaffolding and infuse it with their ingredients and flavorings,” Bayer said.
Several other startups aiming to replace animal products with vegetarian options have turned to fungi for its preferential texture and naturally neutral flavor.
Wild Earth, a startup making vegan dog treats, uses koji – the fungi that gives soy sauce and miso soup their umami kick – in its products. Similarly, startup Terramino Foods is exploring using koji as the central ingredient for its “salmon” burgers.
For now, Ecovative isn’t sure which path in the sustainable food arena – whether it’s cell-based meat or plant-based meat alternatives – the company will end up pursuing the most heavily. The company’s overarching goal is to make its mycelium design platform available to everyone, Bayer said on Tuesday at a launch event hosted by global science conference SynBioBeta.
Regardless, Bayer said he sees a place for his company at the food-of-the-future table.
“This is the next natural step in this evolution to use natural products to make things,” Bayer said. “As the biology advances and the tech advances alongside it, you’re going to see more people building on this platform.”
- A vegan pet food startup called Wild Earth recently scored $450,000 from tech mogul Peter Thiel along with backing from Mars Veterinary, the world’s biggest pet food maker.
- Its first products – vegan dog treats made with koji, a type of fungus similar to mushrooms – went on sale Monday.
- Wild Earth’s CEO told Business Insider he plans to eventually get into the lab-grown meat business.
- That would involve taking stem cells from mice and brewing them up in bioreactors to make pet chow.
Entrepreneur and scientist Ryan Bethencourt won’t feed his foster dogs ingredients that he wouldn’t eat himself. So the long-time vegan, who previously founded the Silicon Valley biotech startup hub IndieBio, created a startup called Wild Earth that’s making animal-free pet food using koji.
The same organism that gives miso soup and sake their pungent kick, koji is the main ingredient in Wild Earth’s first products: vegan dog treats that went on sale Monday.
Wild Earth – which has been backed by tech mogul Peter Thiel and global pet food manufacturer Mars Veterinary – is not limiting itself to koji. Bethencourt told Business Insider he aims to eventually produce dog food made with meat from mouse cells. That would involve taking stem cells from mice and brewing them up in bioreactors to make pet chow.
“People who don’t have cats think this is crazy, but cat parents think it’s super cool,” Bethencourt told Business Insider in August.
The race to lab-grown sausages, burgers … and dog food?
A handful of startups around the world are racing to make lab-grown meat a reality for humans in order to protect the planet. To do it, they are taking stem cells from pigs, cows, and chickens (without killing them), multiplying the cells in labs, and stuffing them into prototype recipes for everything from sausages to burgers and meatballs.
Business Insider got its first taste of lab-grown sausage in September. (Here’s what it was like.)
Bethencourt claims Wild Earth has plans to do the same thing for pets. Instead of pork, beef, or chicken, the food would be mouse-based.
Other startups in the lab-grown meat space aren’t thrilled about Bethencourt’s stated aims. Marketing cultured meat as dog food could destroy its appeal for human consumers, executives from two leading startups in the food tech space told Business Insider in August.
“Would this jeopardize clean meat or make people associate it with lower quality food? Possibly,” Didier Toubia, the co-founder and CEO of an Israeli clean meat startup called Aleph Farms, told Business Insider.
“People won’t want to eat food that’s for pets,” Toubia said.
Bethencourt disagrees, noting that he thinks clean meat for humans will arrive first. He believes that part of the transition to eating more sustainable food includes making sure pets are eating more sustainably too. That includes lab-grown meat.
“In the same way there’s plant-based protein for humans and cultured meat for humans we want to make sure that’s also the case for our pets,” Bethencourt said. “We will do koji; that’s one of our primary protein sources, but we want to have other proteins available for our customers too.”
- A new lab-grown meat startup is taking on the industry’s key hurdle by coming up with a way to make truly slaughter-free meat without relying on cow fetus blood (also known as fetal bovine serum).
- Called Meatable, the Dutch startup was born out of a partnership with Cambridge and uses proprietary stem cell technology to make faster, cheaper lab-grown meat.
- Meatable claims its technology eliminates the need to remove any tissue from an animal – a development that would make it the least invasive method for sourcing cells yet.
A handful of startups around the world are racing to make real meat in facilities that look more like breweries than farms.
In giant steel containers akin to brewer’s vats, cells from pigs, cows, and chickens will be carefully monitored and multiplied. Then, they’ll be formed into burgers, sausages, and meatballs – all without a single animal being slaughtered. At least, that’s the vision.
Until now, lab-grown meat startups have faced a key barrier that’s something of deal-breaker for the industry: the food for the cells comes from slaughtered cows. Called fetal bovine serum, or simply “serum,” the liquid remains the standard means of coaxing animal cells to proliferate.
The founders of a new startup called Meatable think they’ve found a way around the serum problem.
Rather than relying on cells that can’t grow without a serum-like food source, Meatable’s founders use pluripotent stem cells, which possess the unique ability to turn into any type of cell – from muscle to fat – without serum. Other lab-grown meat startups have avoided using pluripotent stem cells because they are notoriously hard to control in a lab environment.
Yet the Meatable team claims they’ve developed the secret sauce to making them behave. It involves proprietary technology created in partnership with Roger Pedersen, a stem cell biologist and founder of the University of Cambridge’s Stem Cell Institute, and Mark Kotter, a Cambridge neurosurgery clinician scientist.
“Serum is out the door for us. We don’t need it in any way,” Daan Luining, Meatable’s chief technology officer, told Business Insider.
A team of heavy-hitters in medicine and meat
- Meatable CTO Daan Luining (let) and CEO Krijn De Nood.
- Courtesy Meatable
Based in the Netherlands, where Dutch researcher Mark Post made history by creating the first beef burger from cow cells, Meatable is stacked with a team of heavy-hitters in medicine and cell-based meat.
Luining previously worked as a research strategist for the nonprofit cell-based agriculture foundation New Harvest; Pedersen founded the first institute for stem cell science at the University of Cambridge; and Kotter founded Elpis Biomed, a British biotech startup that specializes in making cells for research.
“What I saw was too good to be real,” Luining said of his first meeting with Kotter, when he demonstrated his approach to working with stem cells. “Then I saw that is was real.”
The company has raised $3.5 million from three venture capital firms – BlueYard Capital, Atlantic Food Labs, and Backed VC – and several angel investors, including former Microsoft strategist Charlie Songhurst and Jörg Mohaupt, who founded global payment company and Stripe competitor Adyen.
Faster and cheaper slaughter-free meat?
- Hollis Johnson/Business Insider
Many cell-based meat companies get the stem cells for their products from a small piece of tissue taken from a live animal.
Meatable claims it avoids this procedure entirely by sourcing stem cells from animals’ umbilical cords. This is the same process that people use to bank a baby’s stem cells at birth. So-called “cord blood” is collected because the stem cells it contains can be used to treat a variety of disorders and conditions ranging from leukemia to sickle cell disease.
“This way, we don’t harm the animals at all, and it’s material that would otherwise get thrown away,” Krijn De Nood, Meatable’s CEO, told Business Insider.
The key to Meatable’s approach isn’t merely the way they source the cells. Instead, it’s how the startup coaxes them into the right kind of cells – the cells that together makeup the kinds of tissues that people eat.
“When you have a stem cell, it doesn’t know which program to run,” Luining said. “Our technology turns on the right program at the right time.”
For example, if Luining wanted a stem cell to turn into a fat cell or a muscle cell – two types of cells that are found in every meat product – he and his team could direct it to do so using their proprietary technique.
“You can think of it like running a muscle application or a fat application,” Luining said.
Meatable plans to start with beef burgers and sausages and then expand to chicken and pork products. Luining said the technology will lend itself to scaling up to more complex products like steak within a few years.
Luining hopes to see those beef products in restaurants in four years. The startup will likely launch products first in the Netherlands, where he said the regulatory environment is more friendly to cell-based products.
“We’re coming back to where it all started,” said Luining.