Meat... but not as you know it. Sci­ence gets its teeth into food

Lab­o­ra­tory-grown nuggets and burg­ers may be small fry at the mo­ment, but that’s all chang­ing, re­ports Olivia Feld in San Fran­cisco

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Front page -

In a con­verted ware­house in San Fran­cisco, a group of sci­en­tists are work­ing on cre­at­ing lab­o­ra­tory-grown meat. Their com­pany, called Just, re­cently an­nounced that it had cre­ated chicken nuggets grown from stem cells found in a chicken’s feather. The start-up hopes to sign a com­mer­cial agree­ment to sell its chicken by the end of the year, a move that it hopes will be just the be­gin­ning. Just’s bosses pre­dict that within 20 years, its prod­ucts will be more pop­u­lar, cheaper and health­ier than meat de­rived from live­stock.

The first lab-grown or cell-cul­tured meat was a beef burger cre­ated by sci­en­tists at Maas­tricht Uni­ver­sity in the Nether­lands in 2013. Since then, in­vest­ment has soared and dozens of US food com­pa­nies, many in Sil­i­con Val­ley, are work­ing on al­ter­na­tives to tra­di­tion­ally reared meat.

To­day, global meat con­sump­tion stands at over 300m tons a year, more than dou­ble what it was 30 years ago. Live­stock is con­tribut­ing to cli­mate change, rep­re­sent­ing ap­prox­i­mately 14.5pc of global green­house gas emis­sions and ris­ing.

Mean­while, stud­ies have found that high in­takes of red and pro­cessed meat lead to cancer, car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease and a higher mor­tal­ity rate.

A few miles across the San Fran­cisco Bay, a com­pany called Im­pos­si­ble Foods has en­gi­neered a plant-based burger that bleeds when cooked. The patty, which con­tains no meat, is made us­ing an in­gre­di­ent called soya leghe­moglobin, bet­ter known as Heme, a pro­tein found in meat that gives the burger its tex­ture and taste. It is pro­duced by fer­ment­ing ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered yeast.

Sales of plant-based meat al­ter­na­tives in­creased by 24pc in the US alone in the last year, ac­cord­ing to Nielsen. Non-dairy al­ter­na­tives for cheese, but­ter, yo­gurt and ice cream have grown 50pc in the past year and plant-based milk ac­counts for 15pc of the to­tal mar­ket.

The com­pa­nies say they are de­lib­er­ately tar­get­ing con­sumers who eat meat, since veg­e­tar­i­ans and ve­g­ans rep­re­sent less than 5pc of the US pop­u­la­tion.

“We ap­plaud the ve­g­ans and veg­e­tar­i­ans of the world, but they are a tiny frac­tion of the mar­ket,” said an Im­pos­si­ble Foods spokesman. “It’s only by win­ning over those [meat eat­ing con­sumers] that we will ac­tu­ally make a dent in the is­sue here.”

Beyond Meat, which makes plant-en­riched burg­ers de­signed to repli­cate beef pat­ties, claims to be one of the fastest grow­ing com­pa­nies in the US. The Los An­ge­les-based com­pany, whose in­vestors also in­clude Bill Gates, has cre­ated a line of prod­ucts us­ing pea pro­tein to mimic the look and taste of beef, pork and chicken. Its “Beyond Burger” is sold in TGI Fri­day’s, and re­cently Tesco.

Im­pos­si­ble Foods has raised more than $400m (£312m) from a ros­ter of in­vestors that in­clude Google Ven­tures and Gates.

One of the world’s largest food com­pa­nies, Tyson Foods, is bankrolling both lab-made plant and lab-made meat prod­ucts. How­ever, not ev­ery­one is con­vinced of the ben­e­fits. “There is no ev­i­dence that lab-grown meat is sus­tain­able,” Dana Perls, at Friends of the Earth, said.

But there is a more simple, and press­ing, ques­tion. Does ar­ti­fi­cial meat taste any good?

Judg­ing from the re­sponse at fine din­ing San Fran­cisco restau­rant Jar­dinière, it does. Its head chef re­placed the beef burger on her menu with the Im­pos­si­ble Burger and it proved so pop­u­lar that peo­ple were queu­ing out­side to try it be­fore the restau­rant opened.

In a sim­i­lar vein, the chicken pro­duced by Just tastes re­mark­ably like chicken from the farm, at least when wrapped in the salty and crispy bread­ing of a chicken nugget. More dis­tract­ing may be the chicken’s spongy qual­ity.

Low­er­ing the cost of pro­duc­ing lab-made meat is also a ma­jor bar­rier to dis­tri­bu­tion. “It’s still much, much more ex­pen­sive than con­ven­tional meat pro­duc­tion,” says Joshua Tet­rick, Just’s boss.

Reg­u­la­tion may pose another road­block. Although Just is cre­at­ing its prod­ucts in the US, it plans to first sell in Asia. It par­tially blames what it calls an im­ma­ture reg­u­la­tory en­vi­ron­ment in the US. Some progress is be­ing made. The Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture and the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion re­cently an­nounced they were cre­at­ing a joint reg­u­la­tory frame­work to over­see the pro­duc­tion of cell­cul­tured food prod­ucts. But pro­po­nents of lab-grown meat ar­gue that what they are mak­ing will ul­ti­mately be safer. “I can source ev­ery­thing that went into that,” said Chris Jones, Just’s head of devel­op­ment.

Not ev­ery­one is won over, most notably the meat in­dus­try it­self. “To date, only a select few have tasted new cul­tured meat prod­ucts, so it is im­pos­si­ble to say whether they will have a role in our di­ets,” said The North Amer­i­can Meat In­sti­tute.

“Ku­dos, how­ever, to these innovative sci­en­tists for their de­ter­mi­na­tion,” adds the lobby group. “Im­i­ta­tion is the high­est form of flat­tery.”

‘We ap­plaud the ve­g­ans and veg­e­tar­i­ans of the world, but they are tiny frac­tion of the mar­ket’

A ve­gan burger from Sil­i­con Val­ley startup Im­pos­si­ble Food

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