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Food and Health E-ssentials

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Cultured meat products: A new day is dawning for the meat industry

As we begin to exploit the full potential of biotechnology in the development of new and innovative products, perhaps it was only a matter of time before scientists and researchers would turn their attention to the potential use of advanced, laboratory-based culturing techniques for the production of tasteful and nutritious alternatives to naturally-grown food products.

Indeed, in just a few short years, well-funded startup companies have disrupted the established value chain for food production by successfully demonstrating their ability to produce protein-rich meat product substitutes. Importantly, these advances come at a time when there is an increased awareness that many traditional methods of food production are inefficient and wasteful, and will ultimately fail to produce the quantities needed to feed the world’s future population.

This article examines developments in the emerging market for cultured meat products and what the advent of cultured meats means for food quality and safety.

What are cultured meat products?

Not to be confused with plant-based meat-substitutes (think vegan burgers, for example), cultured meat products actually originate from live tissue samples from meat-producing animals, such as cattle, poultry or swine. Technicians extract stem cells from these tissue samples and then carefully cultivate them in production laboratories until the cells produce muscle fibers comparable to those found in the originating animal. Finally, the muscle fibers are cut or minced with flavours and/or colours, and then formed into the intended shape of the final product.

Over the past five years, a number of investor-backed companies have made significant strides in improving the efficiency of cultured meat production and reducing the costs. To illustrate, one of the earliest producers of cultured meats, MosaMeat in the Netherlands, debuted a beef patty in 2013 that cost over $300,000 (USD) to produce. As of 2017, the company reportedly has been able to reduce the per burger price to about $11. At this accelerated rate in the reduction of production costs, MosaMeat and other cultured meat startups project that they will have commercially-viable products on retail store shelves in as soon as five years1.

In parallel with these efforts, researchers are also exploring options to develop cultured meat products based on alternatives to animal serum. Currently an essential component in the cultivation process, animal serum is costly and also presents potential ethical issues for producers. Options here might include substitutes based on algae or fungal extracts or microbial fermentation, or even new substances produced as a result of DNA-based technologies. 

The economic and environmental drivers behind cultured meat product development

Food products based on sustainable growing and production practices have long been popular with key consumer groups, and the appeal of such products has only grown in recent years. At the same time, the imperative to develop commercially-viable cultured meats stems in part from an increased awareness of the actual economic and environmental costs associated with the production of traditional meat products.

According to some estimates, the source of approximately 30 percent of the calories consumed by the world’s population comes from meat products, including beef, chicken and pork2. At the same time, according to research by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, consumption of meat products around the world is expected to increase as the global population continues to grow. This is especially true in low- and middle-income countries around the world, where meat consumption has more than tripled in the past 30 years, and is expected to increase by over 200 percent by the year 20503.

In a separate report, the FAO estimates that approximately 26 percent of the earth’s ice-free land is used for livestock grazing, and 33 percent of croplands are used to produce feed for livestock. As a result, producing the livestock necessary for the production of meat products is resource-intensive, consuming disproportionate amounts and land and water, and resulting in seven percent of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Ominously, the FAO estimates that meeting the estimated nutritional requirements of the world’s projected 2050 population of 9 billion people will require reallocating sizeable portions of land currently dedicated to producing feed for livestock to the production of food intended for direct use by humans4.

Most experts agree that developing new methods of producing meat product equivalents that are tasteful and nutritious is essential in meeting the anticipated future global demand for meat and meat products in an economically-efficient and environmentally-sustainable way.

The potential benefits of cultured meat products

The economic and environmental realities of conventional beef production stand in stark contrast to the potential advantages of cultured meat products. One producer of cultured meats, Memphis Meats, claims that it can produce animal-free products using just one percent of the land and one percent of the water needed to produce a comparable amount of conventional meat products from animals. In a more thorough study of the environmental impacts, researchers generally affirmed Memphis Meats’ claims regarding the dramatic reduction in land and water use, but also found that the production of cultured meats can result in between 7-45 percent lower energy use and between 78-96 percent lower GHG emissions5.

Cultured meat products are sometimes referred to as “clean meats,” since the animal cells and tissues used to generate cultured meat have been carefully harvested and nurtured in a highly-controlled laboratory setting. This helps to significantly reduce the risk of bacterial transmission from the source animals and their environment, or that can result from preparing animal carcasses for processing. By completely eliminating these essential aspects in the production of conventional meat products, cultured meat products are likely to be inherently safer and far less prone to bacterial infection and transmission.

Planning for the future: how cultured meat producers can foster consumer acceptance

The eventual acceptance of cultured meat products will, no doubt, depend in large part on the ability of cultured meat producers to develop products that meet consumers’ expectations regarding their taste and appeal, and this is obviously a key focal point in both current and future product development efforts. At the same time, the advent of cultured meat products represents a brave new world, both for startup companies and established industry players. As a result, developing and maintaining the production infrastructure and the operating procedures necessary to consistently produce safe and nutritious food products will be equally important.

For decades, TÜV SÜD has been a trusted partner to food producers and distributors worldwide, addressing the full range of food testing and auditing services required by the major national regulators and under the leading food certification schemes. Our global team of experienced food professionals actively work with many food industry innovators to help ensure that their products are consistently produced to meet all applicable regulations as well as the highest quality standards. We also remain current with key industry developments and directly support the development of essential food safety standards and codes that support food safety as well as continued innovation in the food industry.

 

[1] “Meet 7 Startups Creating Lab-Grown Meat,” posting to the website of Nanalyze, October 19, 2017. Available here (as of 16 September 2018).
[2] “Our Meatless Future: How the $90B Global Meat Market Gets Disrupted,” research report by CB Insights, November, 2017. Available here (as of 16 September 2018).
[3] “Shaping the future of livestock sustainably, responsibly, efficiently,” a report by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, January 2018. Available here (as of 16 September 2018).
[4] “Livestock and landscapes,” infographic produced by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (no date). Available here  (as of 16 September 2018).
[5] See Note #2 above.
[6] “Environmental Impacts of Cultured Meat Production,” article published in Environmental Science & Technology, June 2011. Abstract available here (as of 16 September 2018).

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