Where’s the beef?
Within the food industry, it is apparent that consumers are beginning to question the types of food they eat. Is the food organic? How is it sourced? And, for the carnivores among us, how is the meat reared?
One interesting food trend in 2017 and into this year has been the increasing number of consumers turning to vegetarianism or veganism. It would seem that the consumption of meat has raised many concerns, including the impact of intensive animal farming on climate change and the ethical issues surrounding the slaughter industry.
While it is undeniable that the variety and quality of food choices available to vegetarians and vegans has improved dramatically in recent years, it would now seem possible that in the not too distant future, meat avoiders could eat meat without abandoning their principles.
The movement of cell-cultured meat has dramatically gained momentum since the unveiling of the first lab grown hamburger produced from bovine stem cells in 2013. The burger, which was reported to have been made from around 20,000 muscle strands, egg powder, breadcrumbs and other ingredients found in traditional burgers, demonstrated that it was possible to continue to include meat within our diets but without slaughtering animals.
The process for producing cell-cultured meat requires a few ‘satellite’ cells, which can be obtained from a muscle sample taken from a living animal. These cells are then allowed to multiply in a nutrient-rich and animal-free medium. The cells formed are then grown on, for example, a gelatin ring, which promotes muscle fusion, creating ‘strips’ of muscle fibres. These are then attached to scaffolds, flooded with nutrients and mechanically stretched to increase size and protein content. The resulting tissue can then be harvested and processed into a boneless meat product.
While the breakthrough in the development of cell-cultured meat in 2013 was a huge leap forward in terms of science, the process was not commercially viable, as the cost of producing the first cell-cultured burger was in the region of €250,000. Clearly, the challenge now facing manufacturers is how to make such a process economically viable.
A lot of the costs associated with the development of the first cell-cultured burger were related to the small scale of the manufacturing process. Dr Mark Post, whose research led to the first cell-cultured burger, believes that it would be possible to make an improved version of the burger for around $10, provided the technology could be scaled up to the level of an industrial food process.
Other companies taking on this challenge include Memphis Meats, which believes that cell-cultured meatballs, hotdogs and sausages will be available on supermarket shelves in around five years. In 2016, the company achieved dramatic reduction in the manufacturing costs of such products, announcing the production of a ‘cultured meatball’ for around $1,000.
Although there seems to be some way to go before the pricing is appealing to average consumer, this is indeed an impressive cost reduction.
Current research in this field is focussed on producing processed meat products. Unprocessed meat is much more difficult to replicate, due to the complex structure of bone, blood vessels and connective tissue present. Nevertheless, Dr Paul Mozdziak, of North Carolina State University, believes that the production of more complex, unprocessed meat will eventually be possible as the technology in this field develops.
Perfect Day, a company also developing animal-free products, is planning to distribute cow-free dairy products. This company has developed a method of inserting DNA sequences from cows into yeast in order to instruct the yeast to produce milk proteins (casein and whey) required in dairy products, such as milk, yogurt, cheese and ice cream. It would seem that the food industry is welcoming this new technology with open arms, as Perfect Day has reportedly been in talks with well-known food and diary companies interested in using the company’s recently patented products.
So, why is this technology creating so much interest? Aside from the moral issues relating to eating meat, there are also a number of serious issues surrounding intensive animal farming.
Intensive farming is a significant contributor to climate change; microorganisms present in the gut of cattle emit millions of tonnes of greenhouse gas methane every year. There is also the issue of space – around 27 per cent of the world’s land mass is dedicated to the beef industry, and in a world with an ever-growing population, this land is becoming increasingly valuable. On a further note, it would be surprising if the clearing of such significant amounts of land for cattle grazing has not caused a significant impact on biodiversity.
From a health perspective, it is believed that the controlled growth of cell-cultured meat will prevent the spread of foodborne diseases, such as mad cow disease, making the consumption of meat safer.
While this new technology has many promising aspects, the introduction of such products could significantly impact the UK farming industry. Another important point is whether consumers will accept meat products grown in a lab, rather than produced from traditional farming.
Either way, the food industry has the potential to create significant revenue for manufacturers. For example, the total value of livestock output in the UK alone in 2016 was £12,691 million, so it is unsurprising that companies at the forefront of these new developments are looking to protect their intellectual property in advance of any product launch.
Due to consumer scepticism, it is unclear yet whether cell-cultured meats will be a commercial success, despite their numerous benefits. I guess the proof will be in the (steak and ale) pudding.
Laura Clews is a UK and European patent attorney at intellectual property firm Mathys & Squire.