This meat has something to snout about
The next stage of meat innovation is nearing, and it’s skipping the whole slaughter and processing steps. That may be a little too simplified, but the next age of meat innovation is taking the need of raising animals for livestock, and instead of slaughtering, they are producing meat from their harvested cells. Now this by no means is a new idea, but we are certainly much closer to these products being on the market for everyday consumers like you and me.
Cell-based meats, or cultivated meat, are produced using cell cultures in a lab environment. Simply put, it intends to produce meat and meat ingredient products from animal cells, which resemble what we see in traditional meat today. While some think it could be more ethical to animals, fit the needs of different values and religions, or possibly even reduce the land needed for meat production and carbon emissions, this is yet to be determined. What is known, is that it’s a pretty impressive use of science, including molecular biology, food science, biotechnology, the understanding of tissue/bio-engineering, and a whole host of other sciences beyond my current knowledge. Plain and simple, it’s kind of cool!
There are several companies in this space trying to produce cultivated meat for consumers. One of them is GOOD Meat, which claims to produce its meat “in a sterile, controlled environment from a single cell, removing slaughter from the process”. Their efforts are to produce meat with humans, animals, and our planet in mind. They suggest that while still producing meat, they are reducing the need for slaughter, reducing carbon emissions by 92%, and using 95% less land than traditional meat production. These are big claims, but even if only a proportion of this were to be true, it is a step towards many goals and issues we need to evaluate.
These companies are also hoping that by cultivating meat, they can work towards eliminating the risks of food-borne illnesses that come with processing meat. Since cultivated meat is grown in a contained environment, there is greater control over what the meat is exposed to. Unlike traditional livestock, meat grown in a lab does not have bones or feathers, the food being introduced to the tissue to grow will have been treated for pathogens, and there is no animal waste and contamination of that sort to deal with. While slaughterhouses, abattoirs, and meat processing facilities are highly regulated and clean, the multiple levels of processing of the meats increase the exposure and risks of contamination and illness to consumers. In 2012/13, the CFIA reported that 21% of chicken carcasses tested positive for salmonella, and back in 2008, 22 Canadian sadly passed due to a listeriosis outbreak at Maple Leaf Foods.
What goes into making this meat?
So how exactly do we get meat without the slaughter? First, cells of a living animal or egg need to be obtained, and the cells chosen are then multiplied. To grow these cells into meat, they need to be exposed to the same environmental needs as animals. To provide this, cells are placed in a bioreactor where they are fed the necessary amino acids, vitamins, and fats. In this environment, the cells continue to grow, meaning that since only certain cells have been selected for growth, there are no bones, feathers, internal organs, or the need for waste disposal. Therefore, no energy is wasted in producing unnecessary byproducts that we have had to find uses for in traditional livestock rearing and slaughter. Since these cells are grown outside of a living organism, they are kept in an environment where they continue to grow and divide, meaning that new cells do not need to be cultivated for every package of nuggets or burgers produced.
Now, this is a very simplified explanation, as every company has its trade secrets as to how exactly they produce their cultivated meat. How exactly they extract the cells and where they source their ‘food’ and blood sources is not disclosed. Each company and product will use its form scaffolding, 3D printed, molded, or even extruded to produce the final product you see. But they all must use a mixture of food sources and structural tools to feed and grow their cells into meats.
Currently, to produce cultured meat, a medium is needed to grow the cells into future meat. The best medium so far has been fetal bovine serum (FBS), which is serum from the cells of dead calves. This serum is harvested from fetuses of pregnant cows which have been slaughtered. Now, this is an expensive medium to have to source, as there is a limited supply of FBS, but it also may raise some moral or ethical concerns to others. Therefore, those in the research and marketing of cultivated meats are in search of an alternative, one that is less expensive and is of plant origins to sustain the growth of cultivated meats. According to Chriki and Hocquette, 2020, such a medium has been found, but it has yet to be tested and proven to work on an industrial level.
What do we need to ask about this upcoming tech and product?
There are many things we need to ask ourselves about this technology, product, and our needs before we place any judgment or start putting in our order for cultivated meats. First, I think we need to ask ourselves, can we see a benefit to this product? When we hear of cultured meats, there is often the discussion that it causes less harm to animals, that it could reduce the spread of pathogens or contamination, and reduce the need for antibiotics and hormones. There is the consideration that it will use less land and could decrease greenhouse gas emissions. But to play devil’s advocate, do we know if this is true yet? It would be fantastic if it were as they all sound like gains to society, but is it all possible or an ideal not realized? Typically, I would love to try to answer these questions in a blog post, but frankly, there isn’t the time nor the full story yet to say conclusively one way or the other.
Is cultured meats too much an ideal of the future?
I hope that the suggested benefits of cultured meats are true, it would be fantastic! It could offer products to those looking for those needs in their food system to be filled, and that is always a win in my book. But it doesn’t mean that traditional meat production will be obsolete, this isn’t Star Trek and a food replicator. We will continue to see livestock being grown on farms for years to come, not everyone wants to give up steaks and eggs, not to forget hides/leather, wool, dairy products, natural fertilizers, and byproducts that are too long to list (click here for a beef example).
While I welcome the ideas of culture meat coming into my life, I am wondering, is this a technology you can accept? GOOD Meat, a subsidiary of the Eat Just firm in December 2020 commercially was the first to sell cell-cultured meat to a restaurant in Singapore, but how fast the market has expanded since is unknown. Raising the question that many may have, does cultured meat have a place on your plate? For many, it may be no, and for others a possible yes. What is it that has influenced this decision? Is it a lack of knowledge, your level of trust in science, your views on animals or your religion that influence your acceptance of this technology and food? I am curious to know, given the option, what is the future of cultured meats in your life, and why?
 GOOD Meats does state “There is nothing natural about the meat we’re putting into our bodies”, which made my eyes roll so hard I can’t believe I even finished writing this blog. The truth is, there is very little that is ‘natural’ in our lives, me sitting at my computer right now is not natural. So, while I commend this company for their efforts in this innovation, I also have trouble taking everything they state so seriously, after all, the idea of this company cultivating meat from cells isn’t very natural either! But perhaps I am just taking this comment too literally.