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Out of the lab and into the frying pan: the future of cultivated meat

Homemade hamburgers on electric grill

Companies have been marketing soy and seitan-based products as ‘meat alternatives’ since the 1970s. But in the last few years, a number of companies have set the bar higher, aiming to create products that replicate the real deal.  

Companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods revolutionised the plant-based meat industry, with reports revealing that retail sales across the alternative meat industry are growing even faster than those of regular meat. And with more than two million Australians living a meat-free life, according to Roy Morgan Research, it’s a trend that’s showing no sign on waning. 

But with faux mince, chicken nuggets, sausages and even fish now stocked on most supermarket shelves, where to from here? 

Here we look at the potential of ‘cultivated meat’, or ‘cultured meat’ as its otherwise known, and the opportunities it brings for food technology companies moving into the future.

 

What is cultivated meat? 

Cultivated meat goes beyond simply approximating the characteristics of meat using plants such as tofu or legumes. It is produced directly from animal cells that are grown in a controlled environment, namely, a laboratory. This type of product has the potential to replicate the taste, smell, texture, nutritional composition and appearance of meat, with little need to raise and no need to slaughter actual animals.  

This is a technology with the potential to fundamentally change how entire industries function, by significantly replacing the way meat is produced with a kinder and less environmentally damaging alternative. 

In late 2020 at a restaurant in Singapore—the only country thus far to approve consumption of cultivated meat—diners feasted for the first time on crispy sesame chicken. Known as Good Meat’, it was entirely grown from animal cells in a lab. Regulatory bodies in the United States have announced agreements to regulate the product, while the EU has provided a significant grant towards its research.  

There are currently fewer than 100 start-ups at various stages of scaling up production that are working on everything from chicken to beef to fish and have both humans and pets in their sights. Though small in number, these companies were able to attract roughly $350 million in investments in 2020 and about $250 million thus far in 2021 from some of the largest animal-protein players, including Tyson and Nutreco, and well-known investors such as Temasek and SoftBank. 

 

The environmental and ethical benefits 

It is now common knowledge that raising livestock has a significant impact on the environment, with direct livestock emissions accounting for around 10 percent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, and even more worldwide. Furthermore, with global demand for meat expected to increase by nearly 73 percent by 2050, there will not be enough available land left on Earth to meet this demand using current meat production methods. One of lab-grown meat’s biggest environmental bonuses is that it requires 95 percent less land usage and its production could theoretically free up millions of acres currently dedicated to livestock. 

For many, it is the ethical or religious implications of eating meat that has led to the rise in vegetarianism and veganism in recent years, for which cultivating meat in some instances could also pose a solution. 

 

The science 

To a certain extent, the science of culturing meat is relatively well understood. The process begins when a cell is taken from an animal and grown in a lab to permanently establish a culture, what is called a ‘cell line’. The cells can come from a range of sources: biopsies of living animals, pieces of fresh meat, cell banks and even the roots of feathers. Once a good cell line has been selected, a sample is introduced into a bioreactor (a vat of culture medium where the cells proliferate exponentially) and can be harvested. The resulting meat cell product can be formed into a range of food items, from patties to sausages. 

But while establishing cell lines is one thing, scaling them up for mass production at a competitive price is another. The problem is that the culture medium needed for cell growth is expensive, however since developing prototypes companies have been able to reduce production costs by 90 percent. 

 

Barriers to market 

While cultivated meat sounds good in theory, perhaps one of the biggest barriers food technology companies will face when taking the product to market will be consumer acceptance – enough that it becomes a profitable product.  

One study suggested that, like many things, educating the population about cultivated meat and its ethical and environmental benefits will play an important role in gaining support for the product. Furthermore, a survey of 673 people conducted at Yale University found that while respondent’s’ attitudes were, for the most part, “cautiously optimistic” regarding consumption of lab-grown meat, a sizeable group were very against the idea. This was the result of factors including “concerns about the novelty”, “naturalness”, “disgust” and “fear of the unknown”. Much more consumer research will need to be performed for companies to create strategies that effectively advertise cultivated meat to the masses. 

 

If you’re looking for staff in the food technology industry, or are looking for a job, contact Bayside Group today

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