In November 2020, a major regulatory breakthrough occurred in Singapore: The Singapore Food Agency approved a cultivated meat product for commercial sale. The chicken product, developed by GOOD Meat, a subsidiary of San Francisco-based company Eat Just, was then launched commercially in restaurants and, in April 2021, it become available via home-delivered dishes.
The approval marks the first entry of a cultivated meat (also referred to as cell-based meat, lab-grown meat, or cellular agriculture) product into the commercial market, a milestone that comes after years of speculation, hype, and investor funds that anticipate these products will play a central role in the future of the meat industry. “This was an important milestone, not just for us, but for the food industry as a whole and the whole food system,” says Peter Licari, chief technology officer at Eat Just.
Ronit Bakimer-Kleiner, vice president of regulatory affairs and product quality and safety at Aleph Farms, an Israel-based company that produced the first cultivated steak in 2018, also called this approval a milestone in bringing cell-based meat products to global markets and underscored the idea that the approval demonstrates that these products have become a reality much more quickly than many people may have anticipated. “It is not a long-term vision anymore, but rather a practical solution to some of our most urgent issues today associated with food production,” she says.
For the growing number of companies now working to bring these types of meat and seafood products to market and the millions of dollars that have been invested—a recent report from Lux Research cited 80 startup companies in the sector as of 2021, with more than $800 million invested since 2016—ongoing challenges for developing widely available safe and high quality products remain, including scaling up production and distribution of the products once developed, educating consumers, and meeting regulatory requirements.
Technical Challenges: Developing Safe and High-Quality Products
Despite success in bringing the first cultivated meat product to market, Licari emphasizes that the technology for these products is still in its infancy. Ongoing work will continue to fine-tune important aspects of production such as nutritional composition and health considerations. Another important component of the research is developing products that create a sensory experience that consumers demand and want in their food, he says.
Samuel S. Peabody IV, a PhD student in animal science at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, and a research fellow at New Harvest, a non-profit research institute focused on cellular agriculture, underscores the many challenges of bringing these types of products to fruition. “There are perhaps a thousand or more distinct research questions and engineering challenges to bring forward,” he says.
Among the challenges are the methodologies and technologies used to actually create cultivated meat and seafood products, as well as the cost and optimization needed to manufacture them. Peabody says that the methodologies and technologies used depend on the intention and goals of the product desired.
A primary technology that has been successfully developed is using proliferated muscle cells from animals. “The core concept behind the process of cultivating meat lies in the ‘tissue regeneration’ process that is naturally happening in the body of any animal, when tissues renew and grow to repair or replace older tissues,” says Bakimer-Kleiner, explaining that the platform used at Aleph Farms for cultivating their steak products mirrors this process of tissue regeneration. “The process is designed to use a fraction of the resources required for raising an entire animal for meat, and without antibiotics.”
Explaining it another way, Eric Shulze, vice president of product and regulation at UPSIDE Foods, a California-based company that produced the first cultured beef meatball in 2016 and first cultured chicken and duck in 2017, says the process of making cultivated meat is similar to the one used for brewing beer. “It is an industrial cell culture process based upon well-hewn fermentation technology,” he says. “However, instead of growing yeast or bacteria, we grow animal cells.”
“We start by taking a small amount of cells from high-quality livestock animals, like a cow or chicken, and then figure out which of those cells have the ability to multiply and form delicious meat food products,” he adds. Once the cells are identified, they are grown in bioreactors or large containers in which they are provided essential nutrients to naturally replicate and mature in a clean and controlled environment. Shulze describes this environment as recreating the conditions that exist inside an animal’s body. “Once the meat is ready, we harvest it, process it like conventional meat products, and then package, cook, or otherwise prepare it for consumption,” he says.
Critical components to the process include identifying cell sources, selecting the media in which to grow the cells, determining how to permit cells growing in the media to create a matrix and structure (scaffold) that mimics the architecture of meat (or seafood), and designing bioreactors to provide a controlled environment in which to grow the cells.
David Kaplan, PhD, professor and chair in the department of biomedical engineering at Tufts University in Boston, is at the forefront of understanding the science of cultivated meat and seafood. He says that a lot of progress has been made on all of these components but that much more is needed to figure out and optimize the processes. “There is a growing effort in the academic community to conduct and publish peer-reviewed studies on these topics, so things are progressing better the last few years, but we still have a long way to go and many fundamental questions to be addressed,” he says.
Peabody gives examples of areas that need further research. One is the need for developing alternative media preparations when using proliferated muscle cells that don’t require animal products other than donor cells. Another is improving optimization and reducing the cost of media preparations, a task he says is being undertaken by numerous research groups and companies. He adds that much of the research to date has been conducted in mammalian models. “There is a considerable gap, in my opinion, for fish and other non-mammalian species,” he says. “However, it should be noted that muscles are older than fish and mammals and dinosaurs, etc., so there might be comparisons that can be made to simplify.”
Concomitant with the ongoing work to better understand the science of producing cultivated meat and seafood products is ensuring their safety and then, once approved, scaling up production to meet consumer demand.
Licari takes a broad view of safety, particularly given the new technology involved in bringing these types of products to market. “[Because this is] a new technology going to a regulator, I think it’s imperative that we provide a complete package of all safety deliberations—from the master cell banks all the way through [to] the chicken that is served to the consumer,” he says.
Environmental management and monitoring are critical components of that package, he says. For example, he cites the importance of ensuring that all components in the growth media are safe, as are the equipment and supplies used. “We need an environment that allows us to maintain sterility through the duration of the run,” he adds.
Bakimer-Kleiner also emphasizes the food safety strategy implemented at Aleph Farms that addresses the distinctive aspects of cultivated meat production. Among them is identification of safety measures to avoid contamination using the good manufacturing practices, hazard analysis, and risk-based preventive controls, implementing quality assurance of cellular attributes at each stage of the process, preventing food fraud by developing a set of product trackers that can provide inspectors with a tool to verify products that differentiate cell-cultured meat from conventional meat, and thoroughly screening cell banks that are prepared as raw materials for producing cultivated meat to ensure that only high-quality and safe cells are used
Both Licari and Bakimer-Kleiner emphasize that, unlike conventional meat, antibiotics are not needed to produce cultivated meat products. In addition, because no animal slaughter is involved, the risk of pathogens, such as Salmonella or E. coli, is mitigated in cultivated meat.
Scaling Up Production and Meeting Consumer Demands
The product from GOOD Meat is being marketed as an alternative to conventional chicken that doesn’t involve intense animal farming or slaughter of animals, says Licari. He emphasizes that a primary motivator behind the creation of these products is that they are seen not only as a more humane and sustainable way to offer a meat-based protein to consumers, but also as a way to broaden the reach of meat protein to consumers in a world where meat consumption—and population growth—is on the rise. “As the world’s population grows and our hunger for meat continues to grow, alternative technology like this is necessary,” he says.
Scaling up the production of these products to meet this growing demand is another challenge. For Peabody, it goes hand in hand with food safety. “For stakeholders who are successful in scale-up, there ought to be a careful consideration of preventive controls,” he says, citing four types of preventive controls (process, sanitation, supply chain, and allergen) that play a role in a food safety plan and are essential to ensuring an efficient and safe scale-up of a product that also meets regulatory approval.
“Every person involved in the scale-up process should have an intuitive grasp of what these [preventive controls] are and how they work,” he adds.
The bottom line is that, given the level of investment made into the research that must go into bringing these products to a wide audience, meat grown from cells is no longer science fiction, but reality.