Cellular meat production has been proposed as a sustainable alternative to traditional animal husbandry and slaughter. It involves culturing muscle-like tissue in a liquid medium with a variety of techniques from tissue engineering. It has also been called clean meat, cultured meat, or in vitro meat, and it is part of the wider field of cellular agriculture in which efforts are being made to use this burgeoning research to reduce the amount of animal-derived material such as meat, milk, eggs, fish, and leather. It is an area of exploration that has garnered a lot of attention as consumers reduce meat consumption, partly in response to sustainability and animal welfare-consciousness. However, there is still desire for meat and animal-derived products which leaves the door open for cellular agriculture. And while there are meat analog products or milk alternatives such as almond milk, these are not replacing the original product closely enough for there to be a broad changeover from animal products. This brief review will cover how cultured meat is created, the proposed benefits of the technology, and consumer acceptance in the early stages of the field.
In the third article of my site’s collaboration with the Do Not Eat the Pseudoscience site, Kelsey Tenney describes the process, its rationale and some of the problems associated with it becoming a major player in the marketplace. It all sounds like a clip from the novel I read when I was back in high school, Brave New World.
Bresaola and whole bone-in ham dry aging
Broadly, cultured meat uses chemical and biological cues to differentiate stem cells into muscle cells. Currently, there are two main approaches to do this. The first is tissue engineering-based. Tissue engineering uses cells from an animal, taken during a biopsy procedure, or a genetically modified cell line. Fermentation-based cellular agriculture, on the other hand, does not use tissue from animals, rather it uses bacteria, algae, or yeast that have been genetically modified. Those modified bacteria, algae, or yeast are fermented and then produce organic specific protein cells (1).
The next part of the equation is how to manipulate those cells into meat. In the body, muscle is created by three pathways. Cultured meat aims to stimulate two of these: regeneration of muscle after trauma and/or embryonic myogenesis, the process by which muscles are differentiated and formed in the womb (the third is muscle building that we typically think of that comes from stimulation/exertion of the muscle) (2).
These processes create meat cells that grow in two dimensions, in a flat sheet. I.e. those end products may be used to create ground burger or a sausage, but a steak or a chicken breast requires a scaffold to help it grow three-dimensionally and a blood vessel network to sustain the 3D structure (3). This technology will be instrumental for cellular agriculture to resemble whole cuts of meat.
One concern with the future of cultured meat is that most of the research and up-front development is being conducted by private companies that don’t share the technologies behind their progress. On the transparent academic front, New Harvest is one of the only research organizations that publishes its methods in research publications (4). For example, silk, collagen, or other animal-derived products are used to create the base scaffold for muscle growth due to their established use in the biomedical field for tissue regeneration. However, Natalie Rubio, one of the first PhD researchers at Tufts University for New Harvest group, is looking into non-animal-derived sources such as mushroom chitosan. Rubio is investigating how muscle cells interact with fungal chitosan on a fundamental growth level.
While the advent of clean meat is not widely understood on a larger scale, there have been some estimations and theoretical models developed for what cultured meat production would look like in contrast to conventional animal husbandry. In particular, the reduction of resources could be advantageous to increase sustainability of meat products. In one model by Tuomisto et al. (5), they quote the following estimations that cultured meat can deliver reduced water use by 82-96%, greenhouse gas emissions by 78-96%, land use by 99%, and greatly increase the health of the overall soil in the runoff areas with complete changeover. However, all studies at this point are theoretical as no authority is quite sure what cultured meat production will look like.
Roasted chicken with crispy skin
Other positives to cultured meat involve benefits to reduced dependency on livestock husbandry. For example, clean meat is less prone to biological risk and disease (6). It also cuts down on waste as ideally, cultured meat will produce only the choice cuts of meat rather than the entire carcass. A less popularized view is that cultured meat production as an alternative to large animal husbandry has the possibility of safeguarding biodiversity of livestock that less efficient/productive than the ‘workhorses’ of current livestock production. On the other hand, one downside of depending on cultured meat is that there is some risk of genetic instability of the cellular culture as it continuously divides and changes with each regeneration (7).
A large part of the success of clean meat once it is commercialized is the acceptance of the broad consumer group that purchases meat. In 2013, the first cultured burger was prepared and eaten in front of reporters in London with some of the first research techniques established in the field. That publicity stunt brought a lot of attention to the field from a positive light. However, there have been negative connotations including the views that cultured meat is ‘lab meat, synthetic meat, or even Frankenstein meat’ (4).
The first advents of cultured meat are likely to be mixes of traditional animal muscle and cellular meat for a few reasons. On one hand, the technology is not up to capacity yet to allow for large volumes of clean meat to be produced, so traditional meat will help fill the gaps. But on the other hand, mixing clean meat with ‘real’ meat will mimic the experience of the traditional burger more closely until the field is far enough along to compete from a sensory standpoint. And finally, it will help consumers cross over with some familiarity to the clean meat side with less unfamiliar product in the mix (8).
Transparency of food production is important to consumer acceptance of novel food items, however the race to create the first commercialized tech in the field leaves the consumer at a bit of a loss. There isn’t a lot of established content on what exactly clean meat is. And the brief descriptions that involve genetic modification without a lot of reasoning as to why that’s necessary could turn the demographic off entirely in the current GMO-phobic environment. Creative marketing that touts the benefits over the unknown will be required to ensure that cultured meat does not take an ‘icky’ connotation. But only time will tell what’s to come for the area of clean meat (9).
Next week: What’s in a name? Why does it matter?
Kelsey is originally from Minnesota and received her B.S. in Food Science from Purdue University. After that, she attained an M.S. in Food Science from Penn State where her research focused on mitigating the taste of bitter for pediatric medications. She now lives in Boston as a food scientist for Incredible Foods while freelance writing and consulting for smaller food start-ups on the side. Kelsey loves eating cookie dough by the spoonful, collecting cookbooks, and watching old episodes of Top Chef. You can follow along with her adventures in the kitchen on her blog Appeasing a Food Geek! (Follow her on Twitter! @Kelsey_Tenney)
- Grefte S., Kuijpers-Jagtman A., Torensma R., Von Der Hoff J.W. Skeletal muscle development and regeneration. Stem Cells and Development. 2007;16:857–868. [PubMed]
- Bentzinger C., Wang Y., Rudnicki M. Building Muscle: Molecular regulation of myogenesis. Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology. 2012;4:a008342. [PubMed]
- Bian W., Bursac N. Engineered skeletal muscle tissue networks with controllable architecture. Biomaterials. 2009;30:1401–1412. [PubMed]
- Bryant C., Barnett J. Consumer acceptance of cultured meat: A systematic review. Meat Science. 2018;143:8–17. [PubMed]
- Tuomisto H., de Mattos M. Environmental impacts of cultured meat production. Environmental Science and Technology. 2011;45:6117–6123. [PubMed]
- FAO . 2013. World livestock 2013 – changing disease landscapes. Rome.
- Mattick C.S., Landis A.E., Allenby B.R., Genovese N.J. Anticipatory life cycle analysis of in vitro biomass cultivation for cultured meat production in the United States. Environmental Science & Technology. 2015;49(19):11941–11949. [PubMed]
- Wilks M., Phillips C. Attitudes to in vitro meat: A survey of potential consumers in the United States. PLoS One. 2017;12(2):e0171904. [PubMed]
- Bekker G., Fischer A., Tobi H., van Trijp H. Explicit and implicit attitude toward an emerging food technology: The case of cultured meat. 2017;108:245–254. [PubMed]