Forget the lab-built burger, now it’s all about cultured steak, says David Burrows.
In recent years, millions of pounds have been ploughed into developing meat products that don’t require any animals to be slaughtered. The big meat processors have also made “strategic” investments in this area of food tech.
“The prototypes are incredibly compelling,” Liz Specht, a senior scientist at the Good Food Institute, told Footprint last year. Producing meat in the lab could potentially have significant environmental benefits, plus there is no need for antibiotics and it could increase the number of “happy animals on earth”.
A report by the Adam Smith Institute in London, published in August 2018, suggested that lab-grown meat could cut greenhouse emissions by 78-96% and use 99% less land.
“For 12,000 years humans have reared animals for meat. In future they will not need to,” said the think-tank’s president, Madsen Pirie. “It will give the world access to a low-cost, high-protein diet, and the UK could become a world leader in this multibillion-pound new industry.”
Within a decade, these products will be undercutting traditional meat, according to some forecasts. Reports from the US that lab-based meats would be on the market for 2018’s Christmas dinner appear to have been wide of the mark, but there was at least a technology breakthrough in December – the world’s first steak grown from cells in a laboratory was produced in Israel.
One of the barriers facing cellular food technologists has been getting the various cell types to interact with each other to build a complete tissue structure as they would in the natural environment inside the animal. This explains why attempts so far have been limited to unstructured products such as burgers and nuggets.
To create a complete structure, like a steak, the challenge is to finding the right nutrients and the combination that allows a “multicellular matrix” to grow together efficiently. Aleph Farms has overcome this obstacle thanks to a bio-engineering platform developed in collaboration with the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa.
"Making a patty or a sausage from cells cultured outside the animal is challenging enough. Imagine how difficult it is to create a whole-muscle steak,” said the company’s co-founder and CEO, Didier Toubia. The initial products are still “relatively thin”, but the technology “marks a true breakthrough” given that there is not only the texture and structure of beef muscle tissue steak but the flavour and shape too.
Amir Ilan, a chef at the restaurant Paris Texas in Ramat Gan, Israel, has tried cooking up the steak (and there’s a video of him doing it). He said it has high culinary potential. “It can be readily incorporated into top-shelf preparations or served in premium-casual restaurants, trendy cafés, bistros, or other eateries,” he explained.
The prototype reportedly costs £40 for a small strip – not outrageous given that the first lab-grown burger five years ago reportedly cost in the region of £225,000. However, the cost would still need to fall to make it an attractive proposition in foodservice.
There are still no commercially available lab meat products – the new steak is three to four years away from arriving on menus. However, there’s a belief that things have improved dramatically since that day in August 2013 when the first lab-grown burger was tasted by a couple of food critics during a news conference in London.
But some are not sure whether the savings are as impressive as reports suggest. Marco Springmann, who has conducted detailed research into the links between diets and climate change at the University of Oxford, said there is no indication that lab-grown meat is significantly better for the environment and health than existing alternatives to beef. “The latest reviews have put the emissions of lab-grown meat at several times that of chicken and far above any plant-based alternative, in particular due to the large energy inputs needed during production,” he told the Guardian recently.
What’s more, will all that readily available, cheap and yet “ethically produced” steak only encourage overconsumption of meat – and fuel obesity? Or will it become affordable enough for those facing malnutrition? That these debates are now beginning to play out in the media suggests that commercially availability really is imminent.
So could we be eating turkey reared in a Petri dish come next Christmas? Maybe. The technology is improving rapidly, but the costs remain prohibitive. There are a number of unanswered environmental, ethical and social questions, but after months of wrangling it seems regulation of cell-cultured meats has been agreed in the US at least – a decision which “provides a clear path to market for cell-based products”, according to the food tech start-up Memphis Meats. The only challenge then is convincing people to eat it…