Clean Meat- from Petri Plate to Dinner Plate
Winston Churchill once predicted a future in which it would be possible to grow chicken meat without rearing live chickens. Churchill’s imagination almost a century ago is now turning into reality with the emergence of a new kind of meat known as clean meat.
Over the past 50 years, the rise in the human population has also increased the global per capita meat consumption by several folds (1). This means meat production must also keep up with the steadily increasing demand. Grown from stem cells of an animal in a laboratory, clean meat is predicted to solve the food crisis, cut down the environmental cost of meat production (2), and eliminate unfair treatment of livestock raised for food. Since this meat is clean from bacteria, antibiotics, and carcinogens, it is predicted to reduce the occurrence of food-related diseases. Several startups like Memphis Meats, Mosa Meat, SuperMeat, Meatable, and Finless Foods have formed around this idea by developing lab-grown beef, pork, poultry, and seafood. But the questions that everyone is asking-Can lab-grown meat make a difference?
From Fantasy to Reality
The generation of muscles, in the lab, had been going on for several years, but its usage was mostly restricted to medical use. However, in early 1990, the culturing of muscles from stem cells started that eventually paved the path for commercial meat growth in the laboratory. Shortly after, NASA joined the race and started experiments on culturing turkey muscle cells and goldfish cells as a possible way to feed astronauts on long space missions. The rising interest in the field led to the foundation of cultured meat consortium that held its first cultured meat symposium in 2008 in Norway to discuss the possibilities of commercializing cultured muscle. In a few years, the first hamburger was made from cultured meat using bovine stem cells by a Dutch company called MosaMeat and was introduced for public tasting in 2013. However, it failed the taste test and proved to be economically infeasible. Nevertheless, this experiment opened up a new market for scientists who believed in the commercial potential of clean meat. A surge in startup companies wanting to explore the meat market was seen.
Clean meat is produced in the lab by culturing muscle fibers. The process starts by collecting a muscle sample from a desired animal. Following this, the muscle tissue is subjected to proteolytic action that facilitates the removal of stem cells (3). These cells are multiplied enormously and differentiated into primitive muscle fibers using nutrient-rich media as food and a three-dimensional scaffold that allows nutrients and oxygen to flow through cell layers (4-7). As time proceeds, the muscle fibers stack upon one another and are removed from the plate enzymatically or mechanically (8). It takes about six weeks to grow the fibers following which they are mixed with color and fat and shaped into burgers.
Commercialization of the Clean Meat Concept
In 2013, Mosa Meat, a Dutch startup, debuted in the clean meat industry by making a beef patty worth $330,000. However, it did not receive applauds for its efforts mainly due to the lack of taste and texture of the meat. Mosa Meat has now reportedly reduced the price of one burger to 11$ but believes that it will take at least a decade to commercialize the lab-grown meat. Since 2013, several startups joined the race with a promise to produce meat that is more like conventional meat. Memphis Meats, a San Francisco-based company, has received $22 million in funding from big capitalists like Richard Branson and Bill gates to produce lab-grown meat. Israel-based startup, SuperMeat raised around $230,000 through crowdfunding for growing chicken cultured from poultry stem cells. Finless food, a Brooklyn-based company, is trying to take the clean meat idea to a new level by culturing stem cells from marine animals and is expected to serve Bluefin tuna from the lab by 2019.
Rising Competition from Plant-Based Meat
The future of clean meat technology looks intriguing. However, several challenges need to be addressed before clean meat can even partially substitute animal meat. Scaling and sustenance being two of them. Even with the most efficient technology, it costs approximately 1000$ to produce one cultured meatball at Memphis meats. Besides, the technology has to compete with the current meat standards, which is difficult to achieve for meat that has a complex structure with connective tissue and fat. In March early this year, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a formal agreement to regulate cell-based meat and poultry (9).
Clean meat also faces huge competition from plant-based meat that has already entered the market and is served at big food chains like Dunkin, Subway, and Del Taco. Startups like Beyond Meat, based out of LA and Impossible foods, based out of CA use a basic strategy of mixing plant-derived fats, carbohydrates, and proteins to produce plant based-meat whereas Motif ingredients genetically modify yeast to produce ingredients that can be used to build any food from scratch. Plant-based protein start-up Emergy Foods is a new entrant which has recently launched Meati Foods that plans to produce steaks and chicken breasts from mycelium. Looking at the exciting future of this vegetarian meat, big giants like Tyson Foods, Nestlé, and Kellogg have entered the plant meat market that is expected to grow worth $140 billion. Although new, this trend has already caught up with the public and will give a tough fight to the producers of clean meat.
Still, not all hope is lost. Current technical challenges that clean meat companies are facing can be overcome by modifying the protocol of muscle growth, which includes extending the life of cell lines, selecting the cell lines with the highest performance, using the growth media with the best nutritional value, and finding the right scaffold for muscle growth. But it still is a long way for the perfect meat to reach our plates.
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