Nearly 33% of meat eaters worldwide today identify as “guilty meat eaters” with concerns about conventional animal agriculture and meat processing. And, just like other sectors such as automotives and energy, the meat processing industry needs to change.
Plant-based meat options, a $5 billion market in the U.S., are growing annually by double-digit percentages, according to research from the Plant Based Foods Association; however, a 2019 report from NielsenIQ concluded that 98% of grocery shoppers who buy plant-based options still purchase conventional meat, suggesting that plant-based meat alternatives are still missing the complete organoleptics of meat.
To make an impact on the $1.6 trillion global meat industry, cell-cultured meat offers several advantages over conventional animal meat by employing a controlled bioprocess that significantly mitigates risks to food safety and human health, from animal farming’s environmental concerns and pollution to unethical and unhygienic treatment of animals during farming and meat processing.
While cell-cultured meat is still in the early stages of development, it’s important to implement industry best practices now. Therefore, it’s prudent to begin assessing risk for and demonstrating the safety of the design and execution of the commercialization of cell-cultured meat. Here, we describe how cell-cultured meat is made, why it’s a safe and healthy alternative to meat that comes from animal farming, and what the potential areas of growth are for research professionals from related disciplines in this space.
The Method for Cell-Cultured Meat
Cell-cultured meat is like the meat you’ve eaten all your life—it just uses more modernized production methods. For millennia, humans have relied on “animals as bioreactors” for all animal-derived food products. But, for nearly 100 years, humans have been producing not just food products, but all kinds of products, from pharmaceuticals to cosmetics, in precision-controlled, human-made bioreactors. In these shiny, sterile, stainless-steel vessels, biological processes can be optimized in a way that emphasizes the best parts of the system directed toward a single purpose: meat production. When it comes down to it, fundamentally, the same process is required whether in an animal or in a bioreactor: Grow a lot of cells that eventually make meat. Unfortunately, the animal is quite inefficient at doing this because that wasn’t its intention. With cell-cultured meat, on the other hand, that is the sole purpose, and the process focuses only on the components required to produce meat.
In animal agriculture, animals are fed nutrient-dense calories, often along with hormones and antibiotics, so that they can grow large as quickly as possible. When they have reached the appropriate age (mass), they are slaughtered and processed into meat. In “cellular agriculture,” cells—for example, from a pig, which is what we use—are selected and placed in a carefully controlled bioreactor where they are fed a nutrient-rich growth medium, so that the cells can multiply as quickly as possible. The medium is composed of a variety of different growth factors, the formula of which is proprietary for any company, which are, in a way, the “calories” that you would feed a pig. The cells then multiply, expanding their mass via mitosis. When they begin, the cells are uncharacterized stem cells. Near the end of the process, they can be fed a new kind of medium that will make them differentiate—that is, become muscle, fat, or connective tissue.
When the cells have reached the appropriate mass, they are collected, and this biomass is processed into meat. This last step is non-trivial: The cells coming out of the reactors are often a sludgy clump, not good to look at and not a product itself. Our process is our own, but from here, we combine our cells with high quality soy protein to create a pork sausage that tastes just like a high-end conventional sausage. This last step most closely resembles a typical food manufacturing facility; there are tumblers, mixers, packers, sealers, and so on. The difference, of course, is that this sausage used fewer resources and energy—and no animals.