It’s the future of meat and poultry — or at least part of the future.
That’s what some investors, among them global agricultural heavyweight Cargill Inc., are saying about meat grown in labs from cells taken from animals without slaughtering them.
On Aug. 22, Memphis Meats Inc. in the Bay Area of California, which so far has produced beef, chicken and duck directly from animal cells, announced it had raised $17 million in funding from investors. Those investors include Cargill, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, and entrepreneur billionaire Richard Branson of the Virgin Group. To date, the funding infusion boosts the amount Memphis Meats has raised overall to $22 million.
It plans to use the money to accelerate the scaling up of “clean-meat” production and to reduce production costs to levels comparable to — and ultimately below — conventional meat costs.
Clean meat, cultured meat or conventional meat
“The world loves to eat meat,” said Uma Valeti, cardiologist, co-founder and CEO of Memphis Meats, in a statement. “The way conventional meat is produced today creates challenges for the environment, animal welfare and human health. These are problems that everyone wants to solve.”
The company’s goal: “To bring meat to the plate in a more sustainable, affordable and delicious way.”
Memphis Meats describes this approach as “one of the biggest technological leaps for humanity.” The company contends that producing meat from cells could require up to 90 percent less land and water while reducing greenhouse gas emissions created during conventional meat production.
Just one beef muscle cell can produce one trillion beef-muscle strands. Go here to see how lab-grown meat is made.
Here’s the beef — and poultry
In January 2016, Memphis Meats introduced its first meatball produced in a lab using cells extracted from a live cow and grown into tissues and then muscle. “The meatball that changed the world,” said Valeti at that time.
“We are growing meat without the need to feed, breed, water or slaughter animals so we can feed the world’s growing appetite for meat in a way that’s better for the environment, animals and humanity,” he said.
Fortune magazine proclaimed “the hottest tech in Silicon Valley made this meatball.”
In April, Memphis Meats followed that feat by offering taste samplings of fried chicken and Duck a l’Orange, both made by growing animal cells from samples collected from live poultry without having to slaughter it. It was described as “the world’s first chicken and duck produced without the animal.”
Valeti described the breakthrough as “the future,” saying that it represents a crucial step toward a world where our meat is produced by growing it from cells. He predicts his company’s products will be on the market by 2021.
Some refer this approach to meat production as “cellular agriculture.” The process would need to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the USDA.
The meat and poultry industry is the largest segment of U.S. Agriculture. Total meat and poultry production in 2012 reached more than 93 billion pounds, according to the North American Meat Institute.
Another choice in the market basket
“This is another way to harvest meat,” Sonya Roberts, the president of growth ventures at Cargill Protein, told the Wall Street Journal. “For people who want a product from an animal-welfare perspective, we want this to be there for them.”
She told Food Safety News the investment in Memphis Meats aligns with Cargill’s mission to nourish people in a safe, responsible and sustainable way as well as with Cargill’s customer-first strategy and focus on growth.
“Investing in Memphis Meats provides our customers and consumers with expanded protein choices,” Roberts said.
Pointing to Cargill’s commitment to growing its traditional protein business and investing in innovative new proteins to ultimately provide a complete basket of goods to its customers, Roberts described the investment as an “exciting way for Cargill to explore the potential of this growing segment of the protein market.”
“Consumers want a variety of choices, which includes both traditional proteins and alternative proteins,” Roberts said. “We know that global demand for protein will continue to grow in the coming years. While cultured protein consumption is very limited today, in comparison to traditional animal protein, this is a growing trend that could potentially be part of this great picture to feed 9 billion people by 2050.”
As for some people’s concerns that “lab meat” — also known as “cultured meat” and “clean meat” — is not natural, Roberts said that it is made of “real animal proteins that aim to minimize the use of natural resources, optimize food safety and provide a high-quality eating experience.”
Cargill’s investment in Memphis Meats marks the first by a conventional meat company into the lab meat sector.
According to the International Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, demand for meat in North America will rise by 8 percent between 2011 and 2020; in Europe, by 7 percent; and in Asia by 56 percent.
Rancher’s doubts, dairyman’s perspective
Washington state cattle rancher Rick Nelson said it sounds like Cargill is trying to cover all bases.
“But at this point, it’s not practical,” he said, pointing to how prohibitively expensive the meat and poultry would be.
“Price is important,” he said. Why do you think McDonald’s is so popular.”
Nelson isn’t worried one bit that this new way of producing meat will put him out of business.
“People complain about GMOs (genetically engineered organisms),” he said. “So I don’t know why they’d want to buy lab meat.”
Former Washington state dairy farmer Dick Klein said he can see some advantages to growing meat and poultry in a lab, especially when considering the world’s growing population.
“When you think of all the feed (grain) you feed to a cow and how that same feed could help feed people, it does seem like it could be put to better use,” he said. He also said that the same goes for water, a resource that is becoming increasingly more valuable due to rising populations.
“No, I’m not against meat made in a lab. It makes sense to find ways to conserve some of the resources fed to cows and chickens. I’ve seen firsthand how much feed and water it takes to raise livestock.”
According to National Geographic, it takes 660 gallons of water to produce a third-pound burger and 468 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of chicken.
Economies of scale
In 2013, when news about the world’s first lab-grown burger came out, it cost $330,000 to produce. But earlier this year, some industry experts were talking about lab-made burger meat that can be produced for $36 per pound — or $9 for a quarter-pound burger.
That price drop has not yet translated into marketplace reality. Even so, industry gurus point to technological advances and cost efficiencies of scale that will come with mass production, which, they say will result in considerably lower production costs.
As for chicken, Memphis Meats estimates that the current price per pound for lab-produced chicken meat at about $9,000 per pound, compared to $3.22 per pound for conventional skinless chicken breasts.
Polls have shown that consumers’ initial reaction to lab meat is a decided thumbs down. But when asked “If cultured meat is molecularly identical to beef, pork, etc., and tastes the same, will you switch to eating it?” 83 percent of the 14,614 people participating in a Sam Harris’ Twitter poll, said they would switch. It was noted that 27 percent of those polled were vegetarians.
“Once clean meat is commercially available and is offered alongside conventional meat — and consumers are thereby informed of all its advantages — we at Good Food Institute have no doubt that consumers will opt for the former,” said said Bruce Friedrich, executive director.
That sentiment is nothing new.
In 1931, The Strand magazine reported Winston Churchill had his eye on the future of protein for people. Memphis Meats uses the British Prime Minister’s quote prominently on its website.
“Fifty years hence, 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,” Churchill said in The Strand 86 years ago.
What about animal agriculture?
Kay Johnson Smith, CEO of the Animal Agriculture Alliance, said the group supports consumer choice so people can purchase food that meets their values and budgets.
“Given the forecasts that food production will need to double by 2050, lab-grown meat is simply an additional way to help meet that demand,” she said.
But while the alliance isn’t opposed to the product, itself, it does take issue with the marketing term “clean meat.”
“It implies that conventionally raised meat is somehow ‘dirty’ in comparison,” she said, citing that description as a disservice to consumers as well as to farmers, ranchers and processors.
She also said the alliance doesn’t believe lab-grown meat will ever be a replacement for traditional livestock production, even if it does become affordable, simply because people rely on livestock for so many products other than meat.
“Everything from bicycle/car/truck tires to lubricants that keep planes, trains and automobiles running, to computers, medical tools, plastics, musical instruments, sports equipment and so many more,” she said. “Without livestock and poultry production, these other products would not exist.”
She also warned that should lab meats be produced on a massive scale “it’s unknown what the true resource demand and impact will be.”
In an earlier interview with Food Safety, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), A spokesperson for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), Kathi Arth, also pointed to non-meat products from livestock as a key variable in the equation.
“We won’t see the real benefits for animals or the environment (from lab meat) until we replace the meat industry’s ‘profit-heavy’ co-products as well,” she said, listing leather, dairy foods, fur, feathers and wool as examples.
Does ‘clean meat’ mean safe meat?
Food safety is an important part of cultured — or clean — meat, according Memphis Meats’ corporate philosophy. Valeti said that one of the big advantages of the company’s process is that it can reduce risk of bacterial contamination.
“Because we do not need to slaughter animals, we expect a much lower risk of fecal contamination, E. coli and salmonella, among others,” he said. “Similarly, the risk of disease — swine flu, mad cow disease, avian flu and more — will be greatly reduced in our process.”
He said the company’s products are produced in a clean environment, which should greatly reduce the risk of bacterial contamination or disease.
“Current meat-production systems produce a myriad of avenues for contamination,” he said.
Yaakov Nahmias, a scientist who has done extensive work on liver tissue engineering, said both Salmonella and E. coli are bacteria species that are naturally present in the guts of animals and transmitted through fecal contamination. Very small amounts of the microscopic bacteria can cause serious infections in people. When multiple animals are used for ground products, bacteria from one animal can contaminate large volumes of hamburgers, turkey dogs, etc.
For poultry specifically, he said, salmonella is naturally present in birds’ fecal matter, which extensively contaminates eggs and chicken products produced in factory farms and meat-packing plants.
Another reason for contamination in conventional operations, he said, is the high-density living and transporting conditions, leading to animals defecating on themselves.
“In contrast,” he said, “cultured meat will be produced by biological manufacturing techniques where cells and tissues are grown in sterile environments and carefully monitored for contaminants. As the process will only grow muscle, it won’t be associated with gut bacteria, thus fecal contamination won’t be possible during the production process.
“It’s hard to overemphasize the benefits of this,” he said. “Eating undercooked chicken has become a major health hazard, with 74,000 cases per year of salmonella infection in the United States alone.”
As for antibiotics, which are typically used in meat animals and poultry to fight disease and speed the animals’ growth, the lab meat researchers say they don’t need to use antibiotics in their products because the sterile laboratory process makes them unnecessary.
Nor do they need to use growth-promoting hormones.
This has important implications for human health as well, especially when it comes to concerns about antibiotic resistant bacteria. According to the Center for Food Safety, 70 percent of medically important antibiotics and 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. each year are marketed to food animal producers.
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