The Future of Cultured Meat

What cultured meat is emulating: a steak.
Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

Cultured meat is one of the latest innovative alternatives hitting the food industry with the primary aim of replacing the slaughtering of animals. Such a term sounds terribly benign and sophisticated. It captures not only cultured meat from animals which would be my first assumption but also poultry, fish and other sea animals like squid and various molluscs. 

Is it that new an idea? Well, the famous war-time Prime Minister of Britain, Winston Churchill was ahead of his time in some ways when he predicted a future for ‘cultured meat’. His apocryphal quote in an article called ’50 Years Hence’ was published in the Strand Magazine, the December edition of 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”

He also added to the comment:

“The new foods will be practically indistinguishable from the natural product from the outset, and any changes will be so gradual as to escape observation.”

This all seems well ahead of its time back then and almost fanciful but we have a reality now 90 years on. In 2013, I remember seeing a news article in the The New York Times  reporting on meat made in the laboratory.  Professor Mark Post had prepared the original cultured beef product using stem cells. It cost $325,000 to make – I thought that’s one hell of an expensive burger!

Jump seven years and Good Meat in 2020 receives the world’s first regulatory approval for a cultured chicken product.  It is followed by subsequent approval for another related chicken based food in 2021. Cultured (laboratory-grown)  meat has caught the imagination of innovators who see an opportunity to offer the consumer something other than a plant-fuelled society. In the last few years, a vast number of start-ups and companies have begun bringing a great wave of biotechnologies together to produce cultured meats. We see players in various food spaces:  air-based protein, gelatin and collagen, growing media, pet foods, pork products, seafood and so on using meat associated biotechnology.  So many businesses now are bringing all these solutions together into the cultured meat space. 

In a commercial sense, the global cultured meat market size is estimated to grow with CAGR above 16% and reach a market value of US$ 517 million by 2030. The World Animal Protection Organization reckons that producing cultured meat uses 99.9% less land and five times less water than the equivalent animal-based farms. That implies  a food capable of nourishing a vast number of people.

A Process Overview of Cultured Meat

Culturing meat of any sort relies on the clever technology of cell culturing. No animals are slaughtered in the process!

Firstly, the manufacturing process relies on sourcing and collecting cells via biopsy from a particular and desirable protein source without having to harm the animal.  Suitable cells are selected based on various quality parameters and grown in bioreactors on a large-scale using cell culturing medium which is nutrient rich. Biomass is grown whereupon the cells differentiate with or without the aid of specialist scaffold proteins of various cell types. The biomass is harvested and formed into meat products with the quality attributes most desired by consumers.

The Component Technologies

Cultured meat production relies on four main technologies. These are:

  • cell lines
  • cell culture media
  • scaffolds for cell development
  • a bioreactor for cell growth

These are the key technologies and building blocks that have to be developed in order for there to be a cultured meat process.

The cell lines are critical because without them there would be no meat to be manufactured. From one protein source such as beef or chicken say, different cell types are used and grown producing fat or muscle cell.

Cell culture media contains all the essential nutrients and growth factors needed for cells to grow, thrive and survive. This is the food for those cells.

The scaffold is a 3d matrix which creates the microenvironment needed for cells to replicate the natural 3D structural format seen in conventional meat products such as steak.

The final technology, that of bioreactors are the platforms or vessels needed for large scale production of cultured meat.

The Impact Of Cultured Meat On The World

The cultured meat environment is important for four main reasons (Odegard et al., 2021):

Ethical production: no slaughter is required so its seen to be more ethical because a whole animal is not slaughtered just for a small part of it to be consumed.

Environmentally friendly: there is 92% less greenhouse emissions, 87% less land use and 94% less water usage compared to animal-based farming. 

Feeding the world: The world’s population is growing and with it,  demand for animal protein. According to the UN, the population of the world is set to exceed 10 billion by 2050 which is one of the most terrifying statistics to deal with. The demand for conventional poultry, meat and fish cannot meet that demand without serious environmental consequences. Demand for meat from Asia and Africa, the Caribbean and South America and many other developing nations for these types of food is also swelling demand for conventional meat – again an unsustainable proposition. It leaves the field wide open for cultured meat products produced in a sustainable commercial way with all sorts of  potential to meet demand without having to fall back on a limited vegetarian diet.

Supports public health: the technology means no antibiotic use, reduced pathogens and parasites. If you grow cells in a sterile environment,  antibiotics are unnecessary as they would be in a farming environment. The elimination of animal slaughter from the process too means  freedom from typical foodborne illness that would be associated with animal farming  is also a distinct reality.  There is a also a  reduction in food-borne illness which is associated with conventional meat production.

Tailored nutrient composition – imagine the possibilities for better nutrition and so addressing all those nutritional and public health concerns.  At this moment in time cultured and laboratory grown meat may be the way forward to assuage the tastes of carnivores with the increased capability and variety over vegetarian and vegan diets . It simply means increasing the range of nutrient composition not currently available in those plant-based diets.

What’s The Regulatory Landscape Like?

A number of regulatory agencies are still having to define the terms and conditions for what a cultured meat is on a global scale. The main players at the moment are the USA, the EU, Israel, Singapore, Japan and Qatar. The regulatory authorities are outlining  safety considerations, establishing testing regimes, making recommendations and conducting risk assessments. All these authorities are covering off self-selection and banking, to packaging and labelling.

What is the current status?

in the USA, the FDA and USDA established a formal agreement in 2019 to jointly regulate the cultured meat space. The FDA will oversee cell selection, cell banks, media, scaffolds, bioreactors and other inputs into the manufacturing of cultured meat. When the meat is harvested, oversight passes to the USDA because they regulate products such as meat, poultry and catfish whilst maintaining oversight for products such as seafood, except for catfish.  

The FDA will also have oversight for facility registration, preventative controls, manufacturing practices, food adulteration requirements and pre-market consultation.  The US Regulatory landscape has 4 main regulatory considerations. That nowadays covers the FSMA, current GMPs, raw materials and supplier qualifications, and raw material documentation. 

To satisfy the FSMA, food processing sites must be registered with the FDA and meet other site requirements including Facility Bioterrorism Registration, the Defense and Fraud Program, and have an Allergen program in place. 

Foods including any raw materials used must be manufactured under proper cGMPs including the implementation of programs such as HACCP and HARPC. the program is overseen by preventative control-qualified individual based on site and not off-site. The Allergen Program must be in place to address the nine US food allergies. The raw material suppliers have to be properly qualified as are their ingredients and for the following, for grass or food additive status compliance, a foreign supplier verification program and sanitary transport requirements. Finally, all raw materials need appropriate documentation for labelling. Such documents include allergen statements, bioengineered statements and religious body qualifications such as Kosher and Halal.  

In the EU, cultivated meat produced without genetic modification is regulated under the Novel Food Regulation and required pre-market authorization. A safety dossier must be submitted which is evaluated and approved or not by the European Food safety Agency, EFSA. In the UK, companies wanting to sell products must apply for authorization and approval from the UK Food Standard Agency and not EFSA.

In Israel, the National Food Control Service oversees applications for regulatory approval for cultured meat.

In the Far East, regulatory matters are getting into full swing. Singapore was the first country to approve cultured meat in November 2020. The Singapore Food Agency (SFA) issued an updated guidance document on Novel Food Safety assessment that covers cultured meat products. To sell such products, business must apply for pre-market authorization with the SFA by submitting a safety dossier, also for review and approval or not. 

It has meant that the brand ‘Eat Just’ was able to sell cultured chicken in that country. No one else has yet approved such a food but France has just backed the cultured foie gras brand Gourmey because of the bad press around treatment of geese. The Netherlands has passed its first law to legalise sampling of cultured meat and given that sector 60 million euros of public sponsorship.

In Japan, the Health, Labour and Welfare Ministry has set up a body of researchers to study the safety of meat grown from animal cells. The regulatory framework is less clear but is being developed.  

In the Middle East, Qatar which hosts the 2022 Soccer World Cup may be the next nation to approve cultured meat products but the regulatory pathway has still to be approved. 

There is also an implication for food safety which will need to address these processes through tools such as the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HAACP) plan which identify and mitigate for a range of hazards in all four technologies. The US Food Safety Modernization Act and supplier qualification programs will also need to keep up with this modern future.

Food Safety

All four technologies will need a HACCP plan which assesses physical, chemical and microbial hazards. Having identified the hazards, critical control points (CCPs) will need to be put in place to mitigate for any hazards identified. The efficacy of each of these critical control points  needs to be tested for and documented for record keeping.

The hazards associated with cultured meat production are still being established even being identified along with requisite testing. 

All fermentations are prone to microbial contamination and is the main microbial hazard for any HACCP study. The main culprit in the cultured meat world is mycoplasma which is estimated to infect between 5 and 35% of the world’s cell lines. Mycoplasma is resistant to antibiotics, passes through filtration systems and is not as easily detected as it could be even in continuous cell culturing systems. Sources of mycoplasma could be from anywhere – animals, humans, equipment and raw materials especially ingredients. 

If you compare this situation however with microbial contamination in farmed animals then  there are substantially many more deadly risks. There is Salmonella, Staphylococcus, E. coli and Listeria to think about amongst the main ones. The implementation of safe handling practices serves us well in minimising these types of microorganisms.

Even with the best meat handling practices available, there is less of a risk in a carefully controlled environment where cell culturing is concerned. It does mean good cell culture practices and safe handling protocols are in place. 

Although bioreactors are expected to be designed for an aseptic environment, there needs to be assessment of heat processing, high-pressure processing and irradiation  to mitigate for any potential microbial contamination of the finished cultured product.

Bioreactors produce biomass in the form of cultured cells. The need for heat treatments, novel processing through high-pressure processing and other stock conventional treatments for the products of fermentation in this case are probably not required. They are mainly employed to mitigate for potential microbial contamination.

Physical hazards could be from metal parts, this is more so in conventional farming such as broken glass, metal parts from grinder and slicers, animal feeds and environmental residues such as manure. Cultured meat production  relies on food-grade equipment across the whole supply chain but with related hazards including glass shards unless a plastic only environment is in place. Chemical hazards include cleaning materials which are used in animal farming and meat processing but also used in animal cell culturing to some extent and there could be heavy metals in the nutrient media. One main concern not seen in the animal husbandry sector is the use of  particular chemicals used in fermentation and in processing which may pass through to the final product as well as the formation of byproducts such as toxins etc., formed during the culturing process and from scaffold development. 

Product Labelling

Cultured meat is called many thinks in the press and in the scientific research papers. It truly does affect consumer perception. They all end in meat though!  We have seen artificial meat, synthetic, clean, in-vitro, cell-based, fake, faux, clean, lab grown and so on. Start-up s prefer less controversial sounding names such as cultured or cultivated meat for starters, cell-based and cell-cultured meat. 

in the USA, some states have legislated to restrict the labelling of cell-cultured meat foods by banning the use of the word meat, banning the use of product identity such as sausage, burger and even chicken because its not made from slaughtered animals. It is a form of state sponsored label censorship but reflects the uncertainties of introducing what others have termed Frankenstein foods and so on. 

To provide good guidance to consumers in the USA, the FDA and USDA made a request  for information in October 2020 and September 2021 for soliciting public comment on labelling. The final regulatory guidelines are to be published and once finalized will provide streamlined guidance on what products made from cell-culture technology should be called.

Let’s face it, cultured meat is no longer fantasy but science fact. All those years ago there was a fanciful notion about a beef burger coming out of a test tube. With the advent of 3d printing and other technologies though, it is so much more a reality. As regulatory considerations are still being defined across the world it is no doubt that current cultured foods safety considerations will need to evolve to meet those demands in this nascent field.

References

Odegard, I., Sinke, P., Vergeer, R. (2021) TEA of cultivated meat. CE Delft.

VisualCapitalist.com Cultured Meat 101: The Next Generation of Food.

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