The 'Who's Who' and 'What's What' of Cultured Meat
By Hadley Turner
Meat from an incubator: It's not an episode of The Twilight Zone or the work of a mad scientist, but it may have an impact on the future of animal foods.
Cultured meat, sometimes referred to as in vitro meat, has been making headlines as research and tech startup companies have expanded the possibilities of developing meat they can "grow" without relying on traditional means of animal food production.
How It Works
The web pages for cultured meat companies SuperMeat and Memphis Meats each contain a brief and similar explanation of how their meat is produced. Cultured meat begins with animal stem cells (in SuperMeat's case) or with biopsied animal cells that growers determine to be the most "self-renewing" (the procedure at Memphis Meats). The meat grows from these living cells, and no animal slaughter is required.
The scientific aspects of the process are complex, and the details differ between labs, but the basic procedure essentially is the same. The original animal cells, wherever they come from, are placed in a nutrient-rich medium that enables them to divide. The process is aided by the insertion scaffolds, which are materials that mimic the natural extracellular matrix, essentially making it easier for cells to survive, migrate, and reproduce. This takes place in an incubatorlike environment. Memphis Meats, for example, says the culturing room of its factory will look much like a beer brewery, with those familiar large cylindrical tanks that taper at the bottom. Eventually, this process forms an all-purpose meat that's biologically the same as that which comes from traditional animal agriculture and, according to creators, functions, looks, and tastes like meat (in other words, it is meat). In theory, one cell could produce enough meat to feed the world for one year, without any genetic modification or animal slaughter.1 All products highlighted in this article are still in development or premarket stage; no information currently is available about FDA approval. Find out more about the full scientific process at www.new-harvest.org/about.
The basic premise behind cultured meat isn't necessarily new. New Harvest, a nonprofit research institute committed to establishing and expanding the field of what they refer to as "cellular agriculture" (ie, cultured and synthetic animal products), was founded in 2004. But the concept of "growing" meat has been around even longer. In 1931, Winston Churchill posited, "Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or the wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium." The '80s have come and gone, but science and technology are starting to catch up. And RDs interested in sustainability certainly are familiar with statements and reports from the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization claiming that a reduction in worldwide meat (as it's currently produced) consumption is necessary if we're going to feed the growing global population, a situation with a level of severity that even the wise Churchill couldn't have foreseen.2
The following three companies/organizations are current pioneers of the cultured meat movement.
According to its website, Memphis Meats is motivated in part by a genuine love of meat. But it also has recognized the toll that meat production has taken on the environment, animals, and humans, from high water usage and greenhouse gas emissions to unhygienic concentrated feeding and slaughtering operations to an epidemic of antibiotic resistance in humans.
Memphis Meats was founded in 2015 in the San Francisco Bay Area by Uma Valeti, MD, a cardiologist; Nicholas Genovese, PhD, a cell biologist, "meat lover, and vegetarian"; and Will Clem, PhD, a former engineer and restaurant franchise owner.
A video of its lab-grown meatball was one of its first products to gain media attention. Though no products are on the market as of yet, Memphis Meats hopes to have hot dogs, sausages, burgers, and meatballs for sale within five years, according to the company's latest press release from November 2016. It also tested five additional yet-unnamed products in the second half of 2016. As of late January, the company had raised 137% of its $100,000 crowdfunding goal on Indiegogo.
SuperMeat's homepage immediately poses a divisive question: "Which side are you on?" But whether you click "Meat is delicious!" or "Stop animal suffering!" you're taken to essentially the same page. SuperMeat emphasizes cultured meat as the middle ground between ethical vegetarianism/veganism and the reality of most people's desire for animal products. The company even states that its products will be suitable for meat eaters, vegetarians, and vegans alike.
Israeli developers Koby Barak, Ido Savir, and Yaakov Mahmias, PhD, who have backgrounds in cell biology, computer and life sciences, and biomedical engineering, respectively, founded SuperMeat. In addition to ethical motivations, they assert cultured meat's ability to end world hunger in the midst of increasing worldwide meat consumption.3
Like Memphis Meats, SuperMeat's products are still in development, but the company expects to bring them to market in about five years and predicts a lower cost than conventional meat. Super Meat's products will include chicken liver meat, minced meat, and chicken breast meat. The company had raised $226,849 on Indiegogo at the end of January. Their next crowdfunding goal is $500,000, and they're hoping to create a taste-ready prototype once they've raised $2.5 million.
While not a company itself, New Harvest is setting new precedents in cellular agriculture. This 501(c)(3) nonprofit research institute funds and conducts public, collaborative research to develop synthetic animal products. This goes beyond meat to milk, eggs, gelatin, limulus amebocyte lysate (the blue blood of Atlantic horseshoe crabs, a key substance used in modern medical testing), and even rhino horns. But its scope of meat products in development is impressive enough—it's currently funding studies at universities worldwide to develop cultured beef, chicken, turkey, pork, and lobster. In addition, in 2015, it began funding the first graduate student fellowship program for cellular agriculture at Tufts University in Boston, in collaboration with Tufts' Tissue Engineering Research Center. Currently, its cultured eggs and milk efforts have resulted in the companies Perfect Day Foods, which already has created an animal-free milk prototype, and Clara Foods, which has cultured egg whites under development.
While cultured meat is still years away from consumers' shopping carts, it's something RDs will want to keep an eye on. Today's Dietitian requested comment from a couple of RDs on this topic.
Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND, founder and president of Farmer's Daughter Consulting, isn't a fan of cultured meat. "There are so many other more viable, appealing, affordable options for meeting human protein needs," she says. "I'd rather see more people eat more plant protein from crops like legumes such as beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas, and peanuts. I think we as registered dietitian nutritionists have a big opportunity to lead the conversation about dietary protein and help people appreciate all of the food and beverage sources that are currently available that provide protein in both plant and animal forms."
On the other hand, Chris Vogliano, MS, RD, sustainability consultant, speaker, and researcher, and clinical research associate for Arivale, a health and wellness optimization company in Seattle, Washington, believes cultured meat could have a significant impact on climate change. "Meat is the biggest source of our dietary carbon and water footprints," he says. "Some may be turned off by lab-grown meat due to its 'ick factor,' but I believe it deserves further consideration." In Vogliano's opinion, cultured meat "will significantly reduce our carbon footprints in a meaningful way and is a necessary technology if we truly want to begin mitigating our diet-related carbon emissions."
Today's Dietitian will explore this topic further in an upcoming print issue.
— Hadley Turner is an editorial assistant for Today's Dietitian.
1. FAQ. New Harvest website. http://www.new-harvest.org/faq#/what_is_cultured_meat. Accessed January 26, 2017.
2. Steinfeld H, Gerber P, Wassenaar T, Castel V, Rosales M, de Haan C. Livestock's long shadow: environmental issues and options. ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/010/a0701e/a0701e00.pdf. Published November 29, 2006. Accessed January 27, 2017.3. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2016–2025: summary in English. http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/docserver/download/0ec3ed80-en.pdf?expires=1485536591&id=id&accname=guest&checksum=331952081C0611D2132F04160F66BCE0. Published July 4, 2016. Accessed January 27, 2017.