Meat products grown in a laboratory may one day compete with traditional meat products.
Photo by David Parry/ PA Wire
By the year 2021, a San Francisco company says some meat production will look different.
Instead of animals being raised on ranches, meat will also be produced in laboratory petri dishes.
Variously called “clean” meat or “cultured” meat, it is produced using stem cell technology.
Memphis Meats in San Fransisco and Cultured Beef in the Netherlands plan to compete with traditional meat for a spot in grocers’ refrigerators.
“We’re going to bring meat to the plate in a more sustainable, affordable and delicious way,” said Dr. Uma Valeti, co-founder and CEO of Memphis Meats, in a press release. “Meat demand is growing rapidly around the world. We want the world to keep eating what it loves.
However, he said, “The way conventional meat is produced today creates challenges for the environment, animal welfare and human health.”
In 2016, the Americans ate 25.668 billion pounds of beef, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, whose member raise most of the nation’s cattle.
The World Health Organization estimates that today 70 percent of arable land worldwide is used for livestock agriculture, and in 2050 meat consumption will be 70 percent higher than it currently is.
“That would mean that we don’t have enough land on the planet to increase livestock volume to match that demand,” Mark Post, a researcher at Cultured Beef, said on the company’s website.
The process of producing cultured meat starts with removing specific muscle stem cells — undifferentiated cells that can turn into specialized cells — from a cow, a harmless procedure resembling a blood draw.
The stem cells then divide to give researchers trillions of cells from the original sample. After enough cells have grown, they are assembled in groups of 1.5 million cells to form small muscle tissue, similar to muscle fibers in steak.
From 10,000 of those fibers, a patty can be formed by adding salt, breadcrumbs and binder, according to Post. The process takes four to six weeks.
“We are currently focusing on hamburgers because we rely on self-organization of the muscle cells to form muscle tissue or fibers,” Post said. “That process results in small tissues that are large enough for minced meat applications, which accounts for 50 percent of the meat market.”
Memphis Meats can now grow a pound of meat for less than $2,400 — a steep drop from the $18,000 it took to produce it in 2016. The company was co-founded in 2015 by Valeti and Nicholas Genovese, who is also the chief security officer.
Post expects the price to be about $10 per hamburger once the production is at scale. As technology improves, however, it will come down further to a price that’s competitive with beef, the company predicts.
Post joined Netherland research teams in 2007, after gaining funding from the Dutch government. Even though the grant expired in 2009, Post continues to work on cultured meat through the Cultured Beef company.
In 2016, the cattle industry was second among Oregon’s agricultural commodities, bringing in $701.2 million. Nationally, the industry had sales of $64.4 billion.
Post said surveys in European countries and the U.S. have shown that 20 to 50 percent of consumers are willing to try cultured meat, but Jerome Rosa, executive director of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, hasn’t seen any data to prove that traditional meat eaters will switch to cultured meat.
“I find it hard to believe; I think that’s a real stretch,” he said. “Consumers seem to be moving towards an anti-lab sentiment. All the concerns we hear about anti-GMOs, and with the continued increase of organic products out there, we see an increase in natural. To come out with a petri-dish product, it’s something that seems to not be the direction of what consumers are wanting.”
Rosa is also concerned about the food waste issue if cultured meat were to gain momentum. Byproducts from food processing and even making beer are now fed to cattle.
“These (food waste) byproducts are fed to cattle. If there’s not a demand for cattle feed out there, these products are going in the landfill,” he said. “We’re taking food waste products and turning them into first-class protein to feed people; that’s a significant environmental benefit.”
He used malts as an example. The microbrewery industry is a large business sector in Oregon, and the malt from the breweries goes to feed cattle.
Rosa also said that ranchers are able to “make food and protein to feed the world on land that is unusable for other food production.”
“Fundamentally the discussion has led to: We really believe that meat comes from an animal raised by a farmer or rancher — there’s no substitute for that,” he said.