It may sound like science fiction, but you may be eating lab grown “meat” very soon, if it lives up to the hype.
Recently I heard a radio interview with futurist Sam Sammartino discussing lab grown meat, saying “Lab-grown meat will be cheaper than the “real” stuff within 10 years.” Really!
In 2013, Professor Mark Post, a Dutch scientist, unveiled the world’s first lab-grown beef burger in London. It only cost $400,000 to produce. His lab at Maastricht University in the Netherlands has set up a business called Mosa Meat in an effort to realise that 10-year timeline.
They are not the only ones. A couple of Silicon Valley start-up founders have also entered the fray with their own products in the making. They include plant-based food company Hampton Creek, founded by a Humane Society executive, and Memphis Meats, started by a cardiologist and a stem cell scientist.
Big names like Richard Branson, Bill Gates and Google’s Sergey Brin are backing the cause, investing millions of dollars as well.
Start-up company Memphis Meats has produced cultured meatballs and poultry recently, and Hampton Creek plans to have a product reveal dinner by the end of the year.
The first products could be available for human consumption within months, according to Josh Tetrick, CEO of “clean meat” (one of the many names given to lab grown meat) manufacturer JUST. Chicken nuggets, sausage and foie gras created using the technique could be served in restaurants in the US and Asia “before the end of 2018”, he told CNN.
So what is involved in the growing of meat in a lab?
The process starts with taking a small biopsy from a cow to harvest stem cells from muscle tissue. The extracted stem cells are then encouraged to proliferate in a nutrient rich, blood-infused broth.
Like cows, cells grown in a culture must be fed too. The most prevalent option is a serum made from the blood of calf foetuses called foetal bovine serum – clearly not a vegan or slaughter-free option. Expensive and proprietary replacements for this culture media do exist but every cultured meat company is working on an affordable serum without animal products.
Placed in a collagen gel, muscle cells have a unique ability to self organise into muscle fibers — contracting, maturing, strengthening and thickening over a few weeks. Combine 10,000 of these muscle fibers, massage them with some salt, add breadcrumbs, spices – and dinner is served – you have a hamburger!
Add fat tissue, and you have something that tastes even more like the meat you’d carve off a cow to serve with chips and salad.
Professor Mark Post says “We have transformed the culture system into something that can be scaled [up for industry], we have improved the protein quality, and perhaps most importantly, we have created fat tissue.”
Fat helps make meat tasty, and taste matters a lot.
Robotic systems would be used to combine the muscle fibers and make the burger patties.
“Our calculations show that with a 25,000-litre bioreactor, the size of a room, you can grow meat for about 10,000 Europeans for an entire year,” he says.
Will People eat It?
A recent internet survey of more than 600 Americans asked about their attitudes towards cultured meat. The researchers were surprised that 65 per cent of people said they would probably or definitely try it, and only 8 per cent definitely would not.
They found men and meat eaters were slightly more open to trying it, whereas vegetarians saw more benefits in its production but were less likely to try it. The more meat people ate, the less convinced they were by the ethical merit of cultured meat as an alternative.
The main barriers people mentioned included perceptions of un-naturalness, price, concerns about health and safety, and the impact on farmers.
Replicating the food we eat is not new. Manufacturing “fake food” has been going on for years, see Fake, Imitation and Counterfeit Foods.