Meat of the future: from lab to plate

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His Melbourne-based non-profit is working with "food innovators", industry leaders and government to accelerate the development, production and supply of more environmentally sustainable proteins such as plant-based and "clean", or cultured, meat.

"It's basically growing and harvesting cells rather than growing and harvesting entire animals," he said.

The cells in question are taken from a cow, duck, pig or chicken (even a feather will do), and then treated with a protein to promote tissue growth before being placed in a nutrient-rich bath which feeds the cells.

The Memphis Meats' southern fried chicken.

Photo: Memphis Meats

When the cell mass is big enough, a trigger differentiates the muscle tissue to form into strands, 20,000 of which combined create one normal-sized hamburger. For a steak (which companies aren't yet producing), it would be more complicated: cells would be grown on an edible scaffold (collagen or a protein to provide structure) to create the three-dimensional and marbled texture of meat.

It's a process called cellular agriculture and once this process is scaled up to full production, King says meat factories will look a bit like breweries do today.

He, alongside the godfather of the first lab-grown burger MosaMeat's Mark Post, sees the future of large-scale production being large tanks that are busy growing cells, with robotic systems to combine muscle fibres into burger patties.

“It's highly likely in 10 years we'll be able to go down to our local meat brewery and see how our meat is made.”

Food Frontier chief executive Thomas King with plant-based meat from Hungry Planet.

Photo: Eddie Jim

The concept may seem abstract, but biotechnologies are rapidly improving. Clean Meat startups are popping up across the US and Israel, with companies aiming to have their animal-based products - minus the animals - on market shelves as quickly as possible.

Business leaders Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Elon Musk's brother Kimbal have poured $17 million between them into the industry.

Branson gave up meat a few years ago and has invested in Memphis Meats, a San Francisco-based company which produced the world's first lab-grown meatball in 2013, and in March 2017, chicken and duck products.

Memphis Meat's lab-grown meatball created in February 2016.

Photo: Supplied.

"I believe that in 30 years or so we will no longer need to kill any animals and that all meat will either be clean or plant-based, taste the same and also be much healthier for everyone. One day we will look back and think how archaic our grandparents were in killing animals for food," Branson said.

Many cellular agricultural start-ups feel the same way - they see widespread production of cultured meat as a way to meet the increasing demand for protein in a more environmentally and sustainable way, with China and India’s hunger for meat only growing.

According to Worldwatch Institute, global meat production has more than quadrupled in the past half-century to over 308 million tonnes in 2013, bringing with it environmental and health costs due to its demands on water, feed, antibiotics and grazing land.

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers says one kilogram of meat requires between 5000 and 20,000 litres of water, while 1 kilogram of wheat requires between 500 and 4000 litres of water.

To this end, Memphis Meats CEO Uma Valeti believes cultured meat "is one of the biggest technological leaps for humanity”.

Large meat companies like Cargill and Tyson Foods are investing in plant-based or cultured meat, including plant protein that behaves like meat. Last year Tyson Foods took part in a $55 million investment round for Beyond Meat, a startup which specialises in plant-based proteins. They have even engineered a plant-based burger that looks like it bleeds.

“How do you get your brain to eat a food and say ‘yum’ and associate it with eating meat, even though it hasn’t come from an animal?” asks Impossible Foods scientist Celeste Holz-Schietinger.

The company’s neuroscientists say it’s to trick your sensory organs, isolating aroma molecules from a burger and replicating the combined smell of apricot, rotting garbage, floral rose, crackers, foot, cheese, mac and cheese and old people.

There's one important ingredient that helps in this trickery:

The molecule heme, which looks and tastes like blood, browns when cooked, but can be extracted from soy plants. With the texture created by using wheat proteins, potato proteins, yam and xanthan gum and coconut oil. Impossible Burgers have gone from being available in 11 restaurants to 500 in the United States.

It’s been reported that Beyond Meat chief executive Ethan Brown is confident he’ll see his famous plant-based patty appear on the menus of fast food chains including McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s in the US. They’re already in TGI Fridays and available in US supermarkets. The patties are due to hit Britain this year.

Perfect Day Dairy cultivates their US Department of Agriculture-approved yeast (casein and whey) into dairy proteins (such as milk and yoghurt) by feeding them off sugar. They say they'll be forging partnerships this year to bring their dairy-free products to market.

For Food Frontier, one of the concerns is that Australia will get left behind. King aims to catalyse the industry here by conducting and promoting research and development and working to facilitate market entry of several leading international companies.

He sees the industry growing and is in the process of recruiting as he works on strategies to support food outlets to diversify their protein offerings.

"By mid-century we're going to have a global population of 9.7 billion people and food production is expected to have to increase by 70 per cent to meet that demand. Already about a third of the world's land service and water supply is used for livestock production, so you don't need to be a mathematician to figure out it's not going to add up," he said.

Hungry Planet's plant-based meat.

Photo: Eddie Jim

King is beginning to work with Australian entrepreneurs from the medical sector who are looking at creating a cultured meat start-up. He sees the potential for a McClean burger hitting menus at McDonald’s.

"We're in conversations with a number of research institutions. Australia is a leader in fields like regenerative medicine, tissue engineering, plant science and crop production, so there is enormous potential for us in these fields," he said.

He believes diversifying Australia's meat industry and export markets with high quality, safe and novel options like plant-based and clean meat will help safeguard Australia's competitiveness in the global food market of the future.

Australia, he believes, has the potential to be an industry leader in this field for the Asia-Pacific region.

Melbourne University professor Robyn Warner's expertise is in meat science. The texture, flavour, what consumers like and don't like and how it could be better. She says her department has been contacted by a few companies interested in researching cultured meat.

"As far as I know, no one is doing research into cultured meat but we've had several inquiries with people who want to collaborate with us for research and development," she said.

"We understand the texture and the complexities of texture and flavour of the meat. We do research flavours to do with odours and to do with flavours in the mouth and how can we replicate that in cultured meat."

Then there is the visual aspect:

She says they work with consumers and producers in understanding definitions surrounding meat.

"I don't know what level of government support there is at the moment, but there certainly is interest in doing this in Australia," she said.

Her department is developing a large research project into the future of protein, and cultured meat may be included in it, with the hope of it getting funding.

"The world is going to need healthy and sustainable protein. This could be producing plant proteins, insect proteins, not just from meat. Insect protein as an industry, there seems to be a lot of interest in that too. I think clean meat has more barriers.”

There are still considerable hurdles. Regulation hasn't even begun in Australia. Spokesman for State Agricultural Minister Jaala Pulford says there are currently no policies or regulations around cultured meat.

Regulation in the US has proven complicated due to some biotechnologies not fitting into regulatory definitions. A key question there was whether cultured meat fits into the USDA’s guidelines or those of the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees safety and security for food additives.

There’s also the price. With more research and as it is scaled, the cost of cultured meat will reduce, King says.

A burger made from cultured beef.

But publisher Forbes reported that as it stands, half a kilogram of Memphis Meats' lab-grown meat costs about $2970, about half the price it cost them to make the same amount a year ago.

Dutch company MosaMeat debuted a lab-grown burger in 2013 to the cost of about $383,000 per patty. Once the process is scaled (in a 25,000-litre bioreactor), it’s estimated it would cost about $12.

"Based on reasonable assumptions on what is achievable, we are confident the price will go down to the level of traditional meat, or even below that," MosaMeat chief executive Peter Verstrate said.

Verstrate said for their company, the first local, premium and very small scale introduction would be in about three years, and in their case, in Europe.

"From that moment on licences will be spread globally, if a licensee in Australia were to come forward the first production could start 2-3 years after that. So 5-6 years at least would be my guess (for Australia) ," he said.

MosaMeat's Chief Scientific Officer Mark Post in the laboratory with chief executive Peter Verstrate.

Photo: MosaMeat

But large-scale meat producers in Australia are already investing in clean meat research departments.

Cattle Council of Australia chief executive Margo Andrae says the organisation recognises there is increasing expenditure in the research and development of cultured meats globally.

“The potential impact this may have on consumer purchasing behaviour, in both domestic and export beef markets, is an unknown,” she said.

“Therefore investigating the potential impact of cultured meats on Australia's cattle industry has become a key priority for the council in 2018.”

King believes key cultured meat consumers wouldn’t be vegetarians but people who love meat but don’t like the idea of eating an animal. It fits in with the flexitarian or reducetarian movements, who try to cut down on their animal meat consumption but find it difficult to give it up completely.

As far as Warner’s research goes, there are still considerable hurdles in Australia, including regulations and legislation when it comes to cultured meat going on supermarket shelves.

But she also says things can happen fast if there is a drive for it.

"If the market is there and consumer interest is there, it will come down to consumer acceptance, cost of production and policy," she said.

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