“I love what I do. What I do is I make meat.”
So declared Eric Schulze, Ph.D., a participant in “Clean Meat: Producing Meat Without Animals Using Cell-Culture Technology,” an enthusiastic panel discussion June 26 at IFT17, the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food exposition in Las Vegas.
|Eric Schulze, Ph.D.,senior scientist at Memphis Meats|
Dr. Schulze is a senior scientist at Memphis Meats, Inc., a San Francisco-based start-up company. His presentation was preceded by an overview of the clean meat field by moderator Liz Specht, Ph.D., senior scientist at the Good Food Institute, a not-for-profit organization established to support plant-based and cellular alternatives to animal products. Several companies, including Memphis Meats, are working to introduce “next-gen meat,” produced with no animal agriculture, animal raising or slaughter, Dr. Specht said.
Numerous factors are catalyzing investment in this new technology, she said.
Headlining this list are sustainability and resource use concerns, she said. Animal agriculture is the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions globally, and the growth of meat intake intensifies competition over resources between the world’s affluent and the world’s poor, Dr. Specht said. She cited a United Nations report expressing concern over the role of animal agriculture as a contributor to deforestation, water pollution and air pollution, locally and globally.
Health concerns associated with animal agriculture have been on the rise because of bacterial resistance to antibiotics.
|Liz Specht, Ph.D., senior scientist at the Good Food Institute|
“The age of antibiotics may be coming to an end in part because of low-level delivery to animals,” Dr. Specht said. She cited data indicating 75% of new diseases affecting humans over the past 10 years originated with animals.
Animal welfare has become a greater and greater concern in recent years, issues rooted in the inefficiency of meat production. For example, restricting the movement of animals to make meat production more efficient makes economic sense but has raised concern among the public.
Dr. Specht described issues of meat production as a “thermodynamic problem.”
“Most of an animal’s energy goes to metabolic functions, mechanical, respiration etc., not to producing meat,” she said. “The question is whether we can remove the animal from the picture and do this more efficiently.”
Starting at the cellular level
Clean meat is meat produced using cell cultures, rather than animal slaughter. The process begins with primary cells taken from a living or recently slaughtered animal. The cells are then cultured and multiply and are then directed to become the constituent parts of meat — mycocytes (muscle), adipocytes (fat) and a handful of other materials such as fibroblasts and chrondrocytes (connective tissue) to provide structural integrity.
“These relative cell types are the same whether we are talking about a steak or fish or something like chicken breast,” Dr. Specht said. “The ratios are different. The structural arrangement of the cell types are different. And of course the species of origin are different, but what we’re talking about here the ability to grow these cells in a platform portable to many different products and species of animals.”
The dream of clean meat is not new, Dr. Specht said, citing Winston Churchill in 1931 predicting that within 50 years “we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing.”
The technology advanced slower than Churchill predicted but has progressed rapidly over the last 15 years, especially the most recent 5, thanks to gains in the biomedical field, Dr. Specht said.
“Technology came from cell therapy, where we grew cell cultures for therapy; gene therapy and the regenerative medicine field,” she said. She cited a 2017 report from the National Academies of Sciences predicting clean meat as an area of “high growth potential.”
Is disruption on the horizon?
In addition to numerous active business start-ups in the clean meat field Dr. Specht cited (including Memphis Meats, Modern Meadow, SuperMeat, Finless Foods and Integriculture), several companies are in “stealth mode,” not yet publicizing their work.
While each company has its own proprietary technology, the basic building blocks of clean meat production are consistent from one company to the next, Dr. Specht said. The two-step process begins with putting animal cells into a cell proliferation bioreactor where, fed by a nutrient solution (cell culture media), the cells multiply.
The second step is scaffolding, which provides a support structure for cellular adherence, Dr. Specht said. The scaffolding material must be edible or biodegradable and serves as the medium where the cells differentiate into the various kinds of component cells (muscle, fat and connective tissue) that make up meat.
“New inputs into the media signal the cells what they should become,” Dr. Specht said. “The scaffold provides biomedical cues and gives spatial control.” She said the scaffolding will help provide heterogeneity, a desired quality in meat — in which no two bites of a steak are exactly identical.
The inefficiency of current methods of meat production were emphasized by Dr. Schulze. Noting that plants are able to convert sunlight into energy at a 10% efficiency rate, animals then eat the plants, also converting into energy at no more than a 10% efficiency rate. Finally, people consume meat, converting into energy at a rate of at most 10%.
“So, 0.1% of sunlight is converted into us,” he said. “It’s very inefficient. We can do better.”
While optimistic about the future of clean meat, Dr. Schulze said there is no prospect for the end of animal agriculture.
“The world will not stop consuming meat,” he said. “We are not trying to eliminate meat. It is a growing market.”
Dr. Schulze said demand for meat is expected to double by the year 2050, further straining already stretched production resources.
Noting that the global meat market is valued at $750 billion per year, for context he said that compares with a global smart phone market worth $430 billion per year.
Expanding on Dr. Specht’s comments about sustainability, Dr. Schulze said production of a single 1,600-lb steer from birth to shelf requires 3.5 Olympic sized swimming pools of fresh water to yield 440 lbs of beef. Using clean meat technology, 440 lbs of meat may be produced with only a single bathtub of water, he said.