Currently working as a Junior Product Manager for Veganz, Europe’s largest purely plant-based food brand, Cosima Richardson is always on the lookout for innovative and sustainable food products.
Having completed an internship with Hospitality Digital in New York City, she obtained her Master’s degree in International Marketing Management. Upon her return to Berlin, Cosima worked as a marketing manager for an organic food start-up while writing her final thesis on potential target groups for cultured meat in Germany.
Made in a laboratory without any harm to animals, clean meat could save a lot of space and resources required for regular livestock production while taking the ethical part of meat consumption out of the equation. Ten years ago, the idea of growing meat in Petri dishes might have seemed absurd. Today, however, it is one of the hottest and boldest topics in food technology.
Space goldfish and a quarter-million burger patty
The technology of so-called tissue engineering is not new: for many years, researchers have been able to grow human heart valves or skin tissue in Petri dishes. The research on growing animal tissue, however, dates back to early 2000s, when NASA decided to culture goldfish to feed the long-distance space travellers (yes, you read correctly).
As the project was quickly discontinued, the research on cultured meat only gained momentum ten years later, in 2013, when Dutch scientist Mark Post managed to produce the world’s first lab-grown beef burger. Food expert Hanni Rützler was the first person to take a bite of the patty, which – given the expensive lab equipment and highly skilled technicians – cost about €250,000.
A burger made from cultured beef, which has been developed by Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands. August 5, 2013. Photo Credit: David Parry/PA
Over the last six years, commercialization of cultured meat has advanced and the product has become more affordable. Post and his company MosaMeat are expecting to bring their cultured beef to selected restaurants within the next three to five years. The price? Approximately €10 per burger. However, Post is aiming to make the product even cheaper than regular meat.
Mark Post is not alone with his vision: A handful of forward-thinking startups have joined MosaMeat in their pursuit. Among them are California-based JUST Inc., who apart from their plant-based egg replacement are working on cultured chorizo, foie gras and chicken nuggets; Memphis Meats, that have been backed by renowned investors such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson, as well as the Israeli start-ups Supermeat, Future Meat Technology and Aleph Farms (formerly Meat the Future) that in 2017 jointly signed a $300 million trade agreement with China which will see the country import cultured meat once its development process is complete.
Yet, what is all the fuss about? Is lab-grown meat really the answer to all our problems?
If it’s not the “real” meat, what is it?
Biologically, cultured meat is the same as conventional meat and thus has a very similar taste and texture. Yet, no animals are slaughtered, as the product is made by cultivating muscle tissue in a lab. Simply put, this process begins with the harmless extraction of animal stem cells which are then placed into a culture medium.
Until now, researchers have been relying on fetal bovine serum for this purpose, a widely used, yet highly contradictive culture medium, which contains the blood of cow fetuses. “Aha!” one might think, “clean meat is not that clean after all.” In fact, all companies in the industry are racing towards developing a plant-based, animal-friendly alternative. Until one is found, cultured meat will probably not be commercialized.
Photo Credit: Aleph Farms
Once placed inside the culture medium, the cells start to multiply. They are then put into a bioreactor, a high-tech vat, which looks similar to the ones in which yoghurt and beer are made. Favourable environment makes the cells grow into strands of muscle tissue, which – layered together – produce clean meat.
Contrary to common belief, this process doesn’t require any kind of genetic modification. The cells simply do the same thing they would do inside of an animal body. Yet, this doesn’t mean that you get a perfectly shaped T-bone steak out of the bioreactor. Instead, current results look more like ground beef.
Achieving any kind of complex shape is one of the biggest challenges for researchers. Israeli start-up Aleph Farms is one of the pioneers in this field: by using special eatable scaffolding, they have managed to create a steak-like texture.
This is the first part of the article “Will clean meat become the next superfood?” The second part will soon be available on our blog.