The idea is nearly a hundred years in the making. None other than Winston Churchill envisioned an alternative to traditional meat production when he wrote in 1931, “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”
Churchill’s poultry example would prove prophetic because the first restaurant to serve lab-grown meat chose chicken in a trio of sample dishes. Served on a bun with spring onion and sesame, wrapped in phyllo puff pastry and black bean puree or topped on a crispy maple waffle with spices and hot sauce, lab-grown meat made its culinary debut in Singapore on Robertson Quay.
So far, Singapore stands alone in producing edible samples of what’s now called cultivated meat and grown from animal cells. Developed by U.S. start-up Eat Just, the sample dishes served at Club 1880 cost about $23.
Today, other countries are ready, also on a small scale, to join Singapore, awaiting regulatory approval. At least 24 countries have companies developing cultivated meat. In the United States, a few factors are speeding up the inevitable debut in restaurants on the quest for healthier, more sustainable foods. One is that the US government has been investing millions into the research for a few select academic centers to grow meat cells. The cells hold the promise of replicating beef, chicken, pork and seafood, but also other consumable goods. Another is the soaring demand for protein alternatives.
Consumers need only look at the recent rise of plant-based meats widely found in grocery stores and restaurant menus to witness the burgeoning demand for alternatives to traditional meat.
In the year ending July 31 last year, plant-based protein sales were up 11%, fueled by a 43% rise in the number of households buying alternatives to meat.
Cultivated meat is distinct from products like veggie burgers or plant-based patties, links and strips that look like their real-meat models.
It’s real animal meat without the slaughter, say scientists such as David Kaplan, PhD, chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts, which is among the US centers leading the field.
Tufts received a $10 million five-year grant from the US Department of Agriculture in 2021 to develop cultivated meat.
Other major centers working on cultivated meat include the University of California-Davis and the University of California at Los Angeles.
Kaplan explains that mass production takes a single cell from one animal, extracted with a needle either from muscle or other tissue or harvested from an animal’s eggs to start a cell line.
The meat is grown by feeding the cells with nutrients that normally would come from the body of the animal – amino acids, glucose, vitamins, proteins and salts. A process called scaffolding can help the cells grow into the components that one day could result in, for instance, a steak with bone, marbled fat and connective tissue.
But what to call this concoction?
The word “cultivated” is unlikely to hit the market as part of mouth-watering ads of the new option. Scientists have called it cultured meat or cell-based protein, but these terms are probably not going to entice people to eat them and will be a marketing challenge for the industry.
The ambitions for cultivated meat are undeniably noble. Feeding the hungry and malnourished is an important long-term goal with cultivated meat, says Joan Salge Blake, EdD, RDN, a registered dietitian and educator at Boston University in Massachusetts. “The issue is that we have to feed the world. This cultivated type of protein is an interesting solution. We need to feed 10 billion people by 2050.”
However, she also says the success of cultivated meat and seafood with the American consumer will come down not to societal issues like sustainability and health, but to personal ones: Will it taste good and be affordable?
“The number one driver of why Americans choose a food or beverage is taste,” Salge Blake says. “The second thing is price.” And with the current rise in inflation, she anticipates the strain on family food budgets will persist.
So how does this new meat taste? Call it a work in progress. Kaplan says the first iteration of the meat will likely be a hybrid—cultivated meat mixed in with plant-based meat to enhance the flavor and texture and keep costs down.
Why does “real” meat need help, taste-wise? Because cultivated meat is grown from cells, potentially harmful fats could be subbed out at the cell level. Which is great from a health standpoint, but not from a “fat is flavor” one.
And like with most foods, tradeoffs for making something taste better or extending shelf life may mean compromising those health benefits.
Salge Blake is blunt: “I don’t think these alternative cultured proteins are ever going to take over traditional steaks and hamburgers.”
David Block, PhD, leads the team of about 55 researchers at UC-Davis’ Cultivated Meat Consortium developing new products with a grant from the National Science Foundation.
He says there is reason to believe cultivated meat will help the environment and be sustainable, but as of now, “nobody really knows.”
He gives an example for beef. A cow eats food and grows but puts out waste. After slaughter, there are also parts of the cow that are not used and discarded. And cows emit planet-warming methane.
The thought is that if the animal cells go directly into a fermenter or bioreactor to grow, there would be less waste and emissions.
“However, I don’t think it’s quite that straightforward,” Block says.
One question lies in the nutrients that will help the cells to grow, he says. They are probably going to be plant-based or agricultural byproducts, so if you use soy, for instance, the question becomes can you grow that much more soy in the world and what does that do to the environment?
Cows eat grass in places where nothing else will grow, he points out. One of the unknowns is whether there is enough arable land globally to produce raw material for cultivated meat production.
And the fermenters that grow cultivated meat are going to have to be sterile for food safety. “To sterilize something, you probably need steam, which adds an energy component in addition to energy and water use for temperature control,” he explains.
What is certain is that more players are placing high-stakes bets that cultivated meat is coming.
Globally, the number of cultivated meat startups jumped to 107 last year, up 24% from 2020.
Block says that compares to “probably six companies six years ago.”
According to the Good Food Institute, cultivated meat companies raised $1.3B in 2021, which is 71% of the all-time investment in the field.
Block says US companies are ready to start production on a pilot scale pending approval from US Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture.
However, “To build a large-scale facility that’s going to make this more available would probably take on the order of five years. Conservatively, this would be 10 or 15 years before this would be widely available,” he says.
Kaplan says no changes are expected anytime soon as far as a shift from traditional farming to cultivated meat, but progress is inevitable. The world population growth over the next three decades and consumer demand will force it.
“We have no choice,” Kaplan says. “We can’t use the same systems to feed 10 billion people on the planet. So we need efficient options.” That means traditional meat, plant-based meat, and cultivated meat. “We need it all.”
Taste and cost concerns aside, many other factors will determine the eventual demand for cultivated meat.
Conversations have already started about whether these new options would meet kosher laws and the restrictions of other religions that forbid consumption of some meats.
What about vegans and vegetarians? If the moral and ethical issues of animal treatment were eliminated, would more people embrace cultivated or “safe” meat, if the new meat were proven healthier?
So many questions. Meanwhile, the science advances and so does the creativity that will no doubt be needed to tempt people into trying and embracing cultivated meat.
Working with entirely new ingredients to come up with something tasty for the general public is an exciting opportunity, according to Colin Buchan, the executive chef who created the new sample dishes at Club 1880 (Buchan is the former private chef to David and Victoria Beckham).
In a statement at the time of the historic gourmet introduction, Chef Nate Park, Director of Product Development at Eat Just added, “Rarely does a career chef get the chance to create an entirely new category of food and help design an interactive meal to introduce that product, and the meaning behind it, to the world for the very first time.”
We suspect Churchill would’ve been too curious not to give it a try.
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