From lab to table — promise of cell-generated meat is immense

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Lab-grown meat
Photo: Adobestock
Keith Nunes

KANSAS CITY — Dubbed “clean meat” by proponents and “fake meat” by detractors, cell-generated meat has the potential to revolutionize the meat processing industry. The process involves taking cell cultures from a recently slaughtered animal, bird or fish, growing the cells to produce tissue, and guiding the tissue to take on the characteristics of meat from the source species. The concept is an offshoot of technologies being used in human medicine to produce cells and tissues for therapeutic use.

The promise of the technology is it may one day simplify the meat processing supply chain by improving animal welfare because of the need for fewer animals to go to slaughter and create a more sustainable finished product. The bulk of meat’s environmental footprint is in the front-end of the production process, in the feed and water necessary to sustain animals and the waste produced by the animals themselves.

The market for clean meat is in a nascent phase. The producers of the products have demonstrated the capability to manufacture a finished product and now are refining the process with an eye toward improved quality, greater variety, lower cost and scale.

Investor reaction has been positive. One company, Memphis Meats, which was founded in 2015, has raised $20.1 million in venture capital investment through five rounds of funding. SuperMeat, Future Meat Technologies and Finless Foods all have received seed investments in the range of $1 million and $5 million. Of particular note is identifying some of the investors. Both Cargill and Tyson Foods, Inc., two of the largest meat processors in the world, have invested in Memphis Meats. Tyson Foods also has invested in Future Meat Technologies.

What should not be lost in the potential of such an innovation is the marketplace disruption it may cause. Today’s meat supply chain has been in place for more than a century, and a wide array of commercial interests may one day be significantly affected. The interests representing the traditional supply chain already are working to establish hurdles to commercialization.

One effort is a call for cell-generated meat to be regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has authority over the processing of meat, poultry and eggs in the United States. On its face this may seem to be a reasonable suggestion, but much of U.S.D.A.’s inspection effort is focused on the condition of the animal going to slaughter and the quality of the carcass for human consumption post-mortem. The regulations are also more burdensome compared to those of the Food and Drug Administration.

To their credit, officials from the F.D.A. have taken the lead on the issue. They will hold a meeting on July 12 to discuss issues such as the safety of foods produced using cell cultures, the substances used in production and their relevance to safety, and any hazards associated with the production of finished products.

These are reasonable and prudent steps toward establishing the safety of this new technology. These efforts must continue to ensure consumer trust in the process and in the safety of finished products.

Innovations with the potential to redefine an industry are rare. Every effort must be made to ensure this one reaches its full potential.