Meaty mat­ters

Fake meat could soon make its way to the mar­ket


I2013, Mark Post of N AU­GUST Maas­tricht Univer­sity served two lab­made beef pat­ties at a much-pub­li­cised event in Lon­don.Post cre­ated the pieces of meat for an as­tound­ing US $325,000 each. It was later re­vealed that the se­cret fun­der of the pro­ject was Google co-founder, Sergey Brin. Brin is just one among a host of in­vestors that in­clude gov­ern­ments and ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists from the Sil­i­con Val­ley, who are putting money into re­search and de­vel­op­ment to pro­duce lab-cul­tured meat and pro­cessed meat sub­sti­tutes.

Lab-made meat has largely been part of science fic­tion.To­day, sci­en­tists are closer to mak­ing this a re­al­ity.At least 30 groups of re­searchers from univer­si­ties and pri­vate com­pa­nies are cur­rently work­ing ag­gres­sively to cre­ate sub­sti­tutes for large-scale man­u­fac­tured meat. The last decade has seen a surge in aca­demic and gen­eral in­ter­est in the field of cul­tured meat.The rea­son for this, ap­par­ently,is the ris­ing con­cerns over hu­man con­sump­tion of meat and un­sus­tain­able cur­rent prac­tices of live­stock farm­ing in terms of its en­vi­ron­men­tal cost.The petri-dish beef cre­ated by Post’s team in 2013 opened the flood­gates for more ex­per­i­ments of syn­thetic or in­vitro meat pro­duc­tion as a vi­able al­ter­na­tive.

Veg­etable-based sub­sti­tutes

The idea to cre­ate an­i­mal-free al­ter­na­tives to meat is not a new one. For over two decades veg­etable pro­teins have been pro­cessed to cre­ate food prod­ucts that im­i­tate meat while be­ing health­ier and far more sus­tain­able. Meat sub­sti­tutes cre­ated from soy,wheat­g­luten and veg­etable pro­teins have steadily in­creased their mar­ket share in Western coun­tries in re­cent years.Though their mar­ket share has in­creased, “fake meat” is still seen as an in­fe­rior sub­sti­tute, which while

tast­ing good, misses out on meaty tex­tures and as­so­ci­ated tastes.

That per­cep­tion looks set to change. A steady stream of fund­ing from sev­eral high­pro­file in­vestors has en­abled bet­ter re­search and more in­vest­ment into ef­fi­cient tech­nolo­gies. Ev­ery year or so,new “fake meat”prod­ucts claim­ing im­prove­ments over pre­vi­ous at­tempts have hit the mar­kets. The con­cept be­hind plant-based meat sub­sti­tutes is to ex­tract and repack­age plant pro­teins in food pro­cess­ing units to mimic meat. The plant pro­teins are treated with ed­i­ble dyes, bind­ing agents and taste en­hancers so that the fin­ished prod­uct looks,feels and tastes more like their non-veg­e­tar­ian coun­ter­parts.The en­tire process in­volves heat­ing, cool­ing and pres­suris­ing the pro­teins so that they align them­selves to im­i­tate an­i­mal pro­tein.

Per­fect­ing the pres­sure tech­nique was a chal­lenge in cre­at­ing meat im­i­ta­tions, but the in­tro­duc­tion of the ex­truder is a po­ten­tial game-changer.The ex­truder, a me­chan­i­cal food pro­ces­sor, is used to cre­ate sausages from meat ag­gre­gates. Now, US-based Be­yond Meat has used the ex­truder to process pea and soy pro­tein into prod­ucts with meat-like con­sis­ten­cies.The im­i­ta­tions cre­ated by Be­yond Meat have been per­fected to such an ex­tent that a sam­ple of their “fake” chicken fooled New York Times food writer Mark Bittman into be­liev­ing he was eat­ing real chicken!

Cul­tured meat

Cul­tured meat refers to the pro­duc­tion of an­i­mal mus­cle tis­sue in a con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment and in iso­la­tion from the an­i­mal it­self (see box: ‘Flesh­ing out’).This ef­fec­tively elim­i­nates the as­pect of an­i­mal cru­elty and in­hu­mane treat­ment that has been as­so­ci­ated with tra­di­tional meat pro­duc­tion.A 2011 study pub­lished in the jour­nal En­vi­ron­ment, Science and Tech­nol­ogy claims cul­tured meat re­quires 7-45 per cent lesser energy in­puts, 99 per cent lower land in­puts and 82-96 per cent lower wa­ter in­puts, while also re­duc­ing green­house gas emis­sions as­so­ci­ated with meat pro­duc­tion by 78-96 per cent. More­over, in­creased live­stock farm­ing has led to a rise in health risks em­a­nat­ing from vi­ral and bac­te­rial strains caus­ing epi­demic out­breaks in re­cent years.

Gaps in pro­gres­sion

Though cul­tured meat pro­duc­tion has been the­o­ret­i­cally per­fected, there are prac­ti­cal dif­fi­cul­ties that sci­en­tists are try­ing to over­come. One ob­sta­cle sci­en­tists are fac­ing is repli­cat­ing cir­cu­la­tory tis­sue,which en­ables a uni­form cir­cu­la­tion of nu­tri­ents in the tis­sue mass as the cul­ture de­vel­ops. Fa­cil­i­tat­ing ef­fi­cient move­ment within the tis­sue cul­ture has also been a chal­lenge. Stim­u­lat­ing move­ment in the cul­ture is cru­cial for healthy de­vel­op­ment of cells. Cur­rently, elec­tric im­pulses are used to in­duce this mo­tion but this is an energy-in­ten­sive process. Re­searchers are also work­ing on non-an­i­mal al­ter­na­tives to the fe­tal serum that is used now.Isha Datar,ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor at New Harvest,an or­gan­i­sa­tion fa­cil­i­tat­ing re­search in cul­tured meats, says, “Even in the cre­ation of the cell cul­tured ham­burger tasted in Au­gust 2013, to­wards the end of the pro­ject,the cells were cul­tured in an an­i­mal-free medium.”

Though hur­dles within the lab are be­ing over­come,their fi­nan­cial vi­a­bil­ity poses a far greater chal­lenge.The cost of the beef pat­ties cre­ated by Post was as­tro­nom­i­cal, far out of the reach of the mid­dle class. “Just like with any other new prod­uct en­ter­ing the mar­ket, prices will re­duce with scale,”ex­plains Datar. “As a high-end prod­uct it (cul­tured meat) may take five to six years. As a large-scale com­mer­cial prod­uct, it will take more than seven years,”claims Post.Kurt Sch­midinger, head sci­en­tist at Fu­ture Food, an Aus­trian or­gan­i­sa­tion con­duct­ing re­search on meat al­ter­na­tives, is more grounded. “At present, the pro­duc­tion is far from be­ing com­mer­cially com­pet­i­tive with meat from an­i­mals, and it is not clear if a com­pli­cated tech­nol­ogy like cul­tured meat can ever de­liver prod­ucts as cheap as in­dus­trial an­i­mal farm­ing prac­tices,”he says.

Even as the tech­nol­ogy takes shape, the eth­i­cal ques­tion is in­evitable. Though in terms of sus­tain­abil­ity and an­i­mal cru­elty con­cerns, the an­swer seems pretty straight­for­ward, but how much in­ter­fer­ence with na­ture is too much in­ter­fer­ence? The “are we play­ing god?”ques­tion is also bound to crop up. We have, for a long time, de­pended on science to solve our prob­lems. The ques­tion is whether science holds the key to con­sump­tion-driven im­bal­ances?


Mark Post's en­gi­neered beef burger (above) was priced at US $325,000

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