Cows are inefficient, says one of the pioneers of laboratory grown meat. Naturally, this does not apply to cows per se, but we humans raise them for the production of meat, of which they yield only 15 grams for every 100 grams of vegetable protein they consume. Any discussion on the new technology of cultivated meat production brings to mind this reflection written by Winston Churchill in 1931: “With a greater knowledge of what are called hormones, i.e., the chemical messengers in our blood, it will be possible to control growth. 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.” However, seven years after the unveiling of the first artificial hamburger, we are still waiting. Will we ever see laboratory meat in the supermarket?
After Churchill offered his vision, it was Dutch doctor Willem Van Eelen who in the 1950s scientifically investigated the idea of producing meat in vitro, although it was not until the 1990s that technological advances allowed the first steps to be taken. In 2005, the production of cultured meat made its way onto the pages of scientific journals, but two years earlier the biological artists Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr had already presented and tasted the first steak created with frog stem cells, as part of their Tissue Culture & Art Project in which they proposed “victimless meat.” In 2013, cultured meat made headlines with the presentation of the first hamburger created in vitro by Dutch professor Mark Post, a project financed by Google co-founder Sergey Brin and which cost 250,000 euros.
Replicating the texture of a meat bite
Beyond the inefficiency of cows and the ethical debate on the slaughter of animals, the truth is that the consumption of meat is today in question because of the environmental impact of livestock farming; 70% of arable land is dedicated to this activity, which consumes large amounts of drinking water and is responsible for 14% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, coupled with the intense use of antibiotics that encourages the proliferation of resistant bacteria. For all these reasons, cultivated meat is presented as a more ecological alternative—although there are those who object to its high energy cost—and today not only research groups abound, but also companies that strive to be the first to bring these products to market.
The principle is based on extracting precursor cells from the animal’s muscle fibres, called myosatellite cells, and cultivating them to create a three-dimensional structure similar to that of conventional meat. These cultures give rise to a material with a consistency similar to minced meat, such as the one presented by Professor Post in 2013, which is suitable for making hamburgers, meatballs or nuggets. However, researchers are currently looking to refine the offering with systems that achieve a texture more similar to that of steak, which requires the use of edible molecular scaffolding to simulate the structure of normal muscle.
A major step along this path has recently been taken by a group of researchers at the Israeli Technion Institute of Technology in Haifa. The scientists have used a porous three-dimensional matrix of soy proteins, on which they have grown bovine myosatellite cells along with other muscle and endothelial cells, which line the blood vessels. The result is a product whose flavour and sensory properties, according to the volunteers who have tried it, achieve “the goal of replicating the sensation and texture of a meat bite,” the researchers write in their study.
The creators of this advance hope to continue improving their product, for example by adding a component that tasters of cultured meat have generally missed: fat. “It would be best to include adipocytes and we have shown that our system supports it,” study co-author Neta Lavon, vice president of R&D at Aleph Farms, the company created to develop the product, told OpenMind. “The next leap to resemble real tissue is to build in the scaffold structures mimicking blood vessels to feed all the internal cells and accordingly allow the formation of thicker steaks.”
Industrial scaling, the litmus test
Thus, the many challenges that remain are gradually being overcome. Researchers have also recently succeeded in replacing foetal bovine serum, a classic ingredient of cell cultures that also depends on livestock. However, alternatives to this natural cocktail of nutrients are still expensive: “Technical barriers to cultured meat commercialisation include reducing the cost of supplemental growth factors, establishing supply chains for other culture medium components and increasing the production scale of adherent cell lines,” Natalie Rubio, a researcher in cell agriculture at Tufts University and New Harvest Institute, summarises for OpenMind.
Industrial scaling will be the litmus test that will determine the future of these technologies, since this is the only way that the cost of Post’s €250,000 burger can be reduced to a realistic figure. “To allow cultured meat to be a viable product we must reach cost parity to conventional meat with time,” says Lavon, and “getting into large scales of production would allow such price decrease.” This is now the goal being pursued by the companies participating in this new technological race. “There is significant room for several different co-existent strategies and technologies, and in some ways it is a matter of economics regarding the ones that we will see first on the market,” Paul Mozdziak, a researcher at North Carolina State University specialising in cultured poultry meat and scientific director of the company Peace of Meat, tells OpenMind.
But the obstacles are not only technical. Rubio notes that the regulation of these products will also be complex. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has already taken steps in this area, but the problems begin when this genus does not yet even have a standardised name: cultured meat, laboratory meat, clean meat…? The situation becomes even more complicated when the meat industry even opposes the marketing of these products as “meat”.
Finally, a big question still remains: in times when all food producers try to market their products under the label of “natural”, will consumers be willing to accept a new food that is 100% manufactured in industrial bioreactors? Some surveys indicate that a large proportion of consumers would be open to trying in vitro produced meat, both in Europe and North America, although not so many would make it a regular part of their diet. Rubio’s research adds a further level of difficulty, as she studies the cultivation of insect meat, muscle like any other, but from animals that, although they are consumed in many regions of the world and are proposed as a food alternative for the future, do not enjoy massive acceptance in the West.
“Cultural acceptance can be enhanced by high quality (e.g. taste, texture and appearance) and accurate and pre-emptive marketing strategies,” comments Rubio. “I believe that the first cultured meat products, even cultured insect meat, should be indistinguishable from a sensory perspective from conventional meat products.” This, by the way, is something about which Churchill also remarked in 1931: “The new foods will be practically indistinguishable from the natural product from the outset, and any changes will be so gradual as to escape observation.”