An emerging body of research unequivocally confirms the need to shift our diets away from a dependency on animal agriculture, and it is clear that a challenge this demanding and urgent requires a multi-pronged, innovative approach.
Many have argued that a widespread transition to a plant-based diet is required, and indeed a plethora of innovative plant-based meat products have recently emerged. However, in the past few years, scientists and entrepreneurs have begun to pioneer an entirely new area of biotechnology that would enable consumers to continue enjoying genuine meat products with a fraction of the environmental, public health, and ethical impacts incurred by current industrial animal agriculture practices. The production of clean meat entails growing the animal cells that comprise meat — namely, muscle and fat cells and their associated connective tissue — through large-scale bioprocesses rather than breeding, rearing, and slaughtering whole animals.
While a number of different terms have been used to describe this approach, the industry has converged on the term clean meat as a nod to the lighter environmental footprint and reduced contamination concerns of products made in this way, as well as to avoid confusion with other food-specific meanings of terms like cultured. Clean production entails a variety of cell types derived from meat-relevant species (including avian, mammalian, and piscine cell lines) and relies heavily on methods from other large-scale cell culture applications such as regenerative medicine, cell-based therapies, and antibody protein therapeutics. Thus, the clean meat industry is sounding a call to action for scientists involved in fields like stem cell biology, tissue engineering, and industrial biotechnology to translate their technical skills and insights to the endeavor of clean meat commercialization.
The process of creating clean meat draws from existing animal cell culture bioprocesses but will require significant innovation as well, especially regarding the development of co-cultures of multiple cell types within complex structural arrangements to produce intact tissues. In current methods, after an initial seed train and large-scale cell expansion phase, cells are seeded on a biodegradable or edible scaffold where a number of methods can be employed to induce cell differentiation into the desired final cell types (muscle, fat, etc.). Following differentiation, the cells mature to adopt the distinctive morphologies and physiologies characterized by their type, collectively forming a tissue that mirrors the composition of cells in animal meat.
Ultimately, clean meat scientists aim to precisely replicate the patterns of cellular organization within a thick, vascularized tissue to create products that are indistinguishable from a cut of meat directly taken from an animal. This method of meat cultivation could be particularly effective in satisfying consumer demand for structurally complex meat pieces, which are unlikely to be satisfactorily mimicked by exclusively plant-based meat technologies.
To overcome the barriers to achieve low-cost clean meat production at scale, there is tremendous need for collaboration between scientists and industry leaders, contracted research, and continued innovation. Key challenges faced by the industry include the high cost of animal component-free cell culture media, the need for innovative edible or biodegradable scaffolds, and the need to engineer systems suitable for the harvesting of large-scale intact tissues. Additional research also is required to increase the robustness of clean meat cells to improve their metabolic efficiency and make them more suitable for large-scale cultivation, which in turn may help reduce the cost or alleviate design requirements for other critical technology elements. Such research would be cross-applicable to other industries that utilize large-scale cell culture, and thus it presents commercial opportunities for licensing into the biomedical field in addition to its importance for clean meat commercialization.
The clean meat field represents fertile ground for establishing strategic partnerships between academic researchers and industry partners to accelerate the pathway to commercialization. Tapping into this enormous potential for cross-disciplinary collaboration will be essential to resolve critical questions and mobilize the clean meat industry. As the search for solutions to the environmental, animal welfare, and public health problems posed by a growing population dependent on animal agriculture intensifies, the success of the of the clean meat field will be instrumental to a greener, safer, and more humane future.
These findings are described in the article entitled Opportunities for applying biomedical production and manufacturing methods to the development of the clean meat industry, recently published in the Biochemical Engineering Journal. This work was conducted by Elizabeth A. Specht, David R. Welch, Erin M. Rees Clayton, and Christie D. Lagally from The Good Food Institute.