“The meatball that changed the world.”
That was the enthusiastic prediction early last year from Uma Valeti, a cardiologist and now CEO of Memphis Meats, as he admired the freshly cooked meatball arranged gourmet-style on a plate.
As a meatball, it definitely had a lot going for it. It was made by specialty chef Dave Anderson, using an Italian recipe. As it cooked in the frying pan, (click here to watch the video) it sizzled and smelled the way a meatball should. And the taste-tester gave it a thumbs-up.
“It tastes like a meatball,” she said. “It tastes good.”
Turns out that the meatball had been produced in a lab by using cells extracted from a live cow and grown into tissues and then muscle. Some people refer to it as lab meat or cultured meat, but researchers and industry leaders prefer to call it “clean meat.”
“It sounds kind of unreal,” said Washington state cattleman Rick Nelson, a tone of disbelief in his voice. “Why would anyone want to eat something like that? It’s certainly not a natural food.”
To Valeti and others in this fledgling industry, there is nothing unreal about what they’re doing. As for how “natural” it is, they point out that it’s not “fake meat” but rather real meat made from real cells from real animals — animals that don’t have to be killed.
“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.
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.
Valeti said he expects meats made by his company to produce up to 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions and need that much less water and land than conventionally produced meat. Also, conventional animal agriculture takes up one-third of the habitable land on Earth and one conventional hamburger requires about 660 gallons of water to produce.
Memphis Meats is also contemplating growing other meats such as chicken and turkey. Valeti predicts its meat products will be just as tasty as meat from conventionally raised animals.
By late 2016, Memphis Meats had already raised $3 million in seed funding for harvesting animal cells and growing meat in the lab. The company is currently in the midst of a fundraising campaign. The goal is to have “clean meat” products on grocery store shelves in the next five years.
There’s a humanitarian element to the company’s mission as well.
“We want Memphis Meats to have a global presence,” said Valeti. “Once we scale up and can produce our meat at a low enough cost, we hope to be able to address issues of global poverty and lack of access to high-quality protein.”
For cattleman Nelson, it’s all a bit far-fetched.
“What are they going to come up with next,” he said. “Will they be able to grow a prime rib?”
Costs will depend on scale op operations
In 2013, when news about the world’s first lab-grown burger came out, the burger would have cost $330,000. But now some industry experts talk about lab meat that can be produced for $36 per pound — or $9 for a quarter-pound burger. However, this price has not yet translated into market-place reality.
Industry gurus also point to technological advances and cost efficiencies of scale that will come with mass production and will add up to a considerably lower production costs.
Washington cattle producer Nelson believes price will be one of the major sticking points.
“It’s not too apt to find its way into the hands of consumers,” he said. “Price is important. Why do you think McDonald’s is so popular?
Hey Mom, grow me an extra drumstick
In 2013, the world’s first cultured burger was cooked and eaten in London. That was a catalyst for researchers at Israeli start-up SuperMeat to work toward mass production of so-called cultured meat.
Expectations are that the company will be able to mass produce cultured meat under clean and monitored conditions “on a scale never seen before,” said a company spokesperson.
SuperMeat’s corporate materials describe it as the first company to ever work on cultured chicken meat products for mass production. The plan is to organically grow full-size chicken tissue.
According to the company’s description of how this will be done, scientists will take a small biopsy sample from a chicken, segregate it into separate cells that proliferate in culture, and grow them into tissue in an environment that mimics the chicken’s physiology.
They have plans to design small-scale meat production machines, which can be placed in supermarkets, restaurants, and even in people’s homes.
“Our system will eventually enable every household to have its own meat cultivation machine and be able to create its own SuperMeat meals,” says the company’s website.
That’s a far cry from huge flocks of chickens being raised in often-times crowded chicken houses and then being transported to processing facilities where they’ll be slaughtered and then delivered to grocery stores and restaurants.
SuperMeat’s promotional materials say it’s revolutionizing the meat industry by “ushering in the biggest change to the way people consume food since the dawn of the industrial Age.” Some are referring to this “revolution” as “cellular agriculture.”
None other than Winston Churchill appears to have been ahead of the game in this, when in 1931, he said: “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.”
Does ‘clean meat’ mean safe meat?
Food safety is an important part of cultured — or clean — meat, according to this statement on Memphis Meats’ website:
“We love meat. But like most Americans, we don’t love the many negative side effects of conventional meat production: environmental degradation, a slew of health risks, animal suffering and food products that contain fecal matter, pathogens and other contaminants.”
Memphis Meats’ 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 also pointed out that because the company’s products are produced in a clean environment, “we expect them to greatly reduce the risk of bacterial contamination or disease.”
“Current meat-production systems produce a myriad of avenues for contamination, including fecal contamination, E. coli and salmonella,” he said
Yaakov Nahmias, an eminent scientist who, among other accomplishments, has done groundbreaking work on liver tissue engineering, is the head researcher of SuperMeat. He said the lab-grown meat will be produced under sterile conditions.
He pointed out that both salmonella and E. coli are bacteria species that are naturally present in the guts of animals and transmitted through fecal contamination.
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.
Nahmias said another reason for contamination in conventional operations is the high animal density leading to animals defecating on themselves during transportation to the slaughter house.
“In contrast,” he said, “clean 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.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that pathogens in conventionally produced meat are the most common sources of fatal food-related infections.
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 drugs. 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,
As for food-safety concerns from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), spokesperson Kathi Arth said that lab or clean meat is “real meat, grown from real cells from cows, chickens, pigs, and fish” without inflicting misery on the animals, “and without the mess of massive manure lagoons, which are the breeding grounds for E. coli, campylobacter, and salmonella.”
However, she also said that “we won’t see the real benefits for animals or the environment until we replace the meat industry’s ‘profit-heavy’ co-products as well.” Examples of these products are leather, dairy foods, fur, feathers and wool.
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