WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Clean meat, real meat that is produced in the same way animals produce meat but outside the animal, will revolutionise food production – if the costs are right.
It’s thought that lab grown meat, also known as clean meat because it allows us to create the meats we all love, such as beef, chicken, duck, salmon and even tuna, but without the animals, could offer a more ethical and environmentally sustainable alternative to traditional meats – especially when we consider the fact that today we have to raise and slaughter hundreds of millions of animals that consume not only land but also contribute 20 percent of all of today’s greenhouse gas emissions. And now, just six years on from the time when these meats cost over $1,200,000 per pound one UK based startup thinks it has found a way to push today’s price of $363 per pound to just $15 per burger – a number and price trajectory that then puts clean meats within spitting distance of supermarket prices for equivalent meats that are sourced from animals, with all the environmental and “ethical” considerations that carries, and that are often packed full of growth hormones and anti-biotics.
Multus Media is working on reducing the cost of one of the biggest components of clean meat. Today the technology works by encouraging more animal cells to grow in a bioreactor, using a process that replicates what goes on inside a cow, but outside of a cow, but the growth formula used to encourage the cells to grow is usually very expensive, and, ironically when its extracted it can harm the same animals the process is looking to replace.
The team, made up of students from Imperial College London, now believe they may have the means to encourage the same cell growth with a cheaper, animal-free alternative. The group is now competing in the university’s Faculty of Natural Sciences Make-A-Difference competition, which will award up to $7,000 to the best proof-of-concept prototype.
“Being part of FoNS-MAD is an opportunity to accelerate our work, by giving us access to more specialised lab facilities, academic mentorship and funding,” Cai Linton, co-founder of Multus Media, told Imperial College London in a Friday story.
Clean meat is produced by taking stem cells from an animal and placing them in a nutrient-rich environment to encourage them to grow. Dutch researcher Mark Post ate the first “clean” burger in 2013, but its $330,000 price placed it far outside the realm of the everyday McDonald’s menu, and new research suggests the meat could hit shelves by 2021 with a price tag of $10 per patty — but the nutrients used to feed the cells are expected to be a major factor in the final price, and the eventual adoption and consumption of these types of meats.
The winner of the competition will be announced later this month, and Multus Media has just over eight weeks to demonstrate that it can solve one of the biggest problems with clean meat and pave the way for a more sustainable culinary future.
Although the meats are nowhere to be seen on store shelves yet, interest is developing ahead of their expected launch. Startups have begun discussing future in-vitro foods like foie gras, fish and kangaroo, and meanwhile Israeli startup Aleph Farms’ intricate clean meat fillet steaks recreate the texture of a premium beef cut by growing four different cell petri dishes for fat, muscle, blood vessels and connective tissue.
One of the biggest hurdles to growing these cells on a mass scale is the process. Post, the researcher behind the first burger, told the American Chemical Society that “cell culture is not a really efficient process…a lot of our colleagues still think we are absolutely crazy because they say you can’t make this efficient at all.”
The growth serum used to stimulate these cells could be a major stumbling block. The American Chemical Society explained in an October 2018 article that the stuff used to feed the cells could make up around 80 percent of the product’s final cost. Compare that to traditional livestock, which happily grazes on any bits of grass growing naturally on the ground, and you can see the issue.
The serum contains both nutrients and growth factors. These latter components, proteins that stimulate the growth, are hard to find. Blood serum from calf foetuses, while in theory quite easy to find, arguably undermine the purpose of lab-grown meat as it involves killing pregnant cows which is why Post pledged to molecular science newsletter C2W International that he would never use this technique in the final product from his firm, Mosa Meats.
An April 2018 story with Wired noted that the foetal bovine serum industry produces only a tiny amount of serum, enough for the few millilitres required for these early experiments but not enough to support a widespread industry. As analysis from AT Kearney predicted the meats would comprise 35 percent of all global meat consumption by 2040, the industry will need to find a replacement both to earn its ethical credentials and meet those high predictions.
And this is where the work Multus Media are doing could hold the answer. The firm’s culture medium works around genetically engineered yeast that creates mammalian growth factors. The yeast has been engineered to create the right hormones for growth, while the yeast itself can be used to create an extract with the required nutrients. That covers both areas, and could make the process more efficient and much cheaper.
Others are exploring the area too. Mosa Meats has suggested using genetically-engineered bacteria to produce growth factors, and Finless Foods, that I talked about recently, has also explored using fish DNA to modify yeasts, similar to Multus. Integriculture, a Japanese firm looking at clean meat goose liver, has also demonstrated an unconventional growth mixture that uses sports energy drinks.
So, as you can see the race is on to clean up clean meat and get the price down, so it’s only going to be a matter of time until it beats supermarket prices and finally gives us all the opportunity to enjoy “real” meat without having to catch and slaughter animals, contribute to climate change, or deforest the Amazon rainforest.