Animal-based protein without the animal

The problem with meat is that it comes from an animal slaughtered and cut up to pieces for cooking and eating. Some animals have limited freedom before killing. Others don’t. Would it make a difference if meat was not associated with lives on a factory farm or in the slaughterhouse? There may be a solution on the horizon. It involves only choice cuts, less food poisoning, no manure, and no animal. How is that possible? An excellent review describes the potential and difficulties associated with this technology (1).

What is in a name? It’s called cultured meat or clean meat. Or is it fake meat? Or synthetic meat? Or lab-grown meat? Or in vitro meat? None of those terms sound very appealing. They are different names for the same food. What about a contest to come up with a better name that won’t offend anyone? No, I am not talking about plant-based meats. I refer to meats cultured in a fermenter and structured into products that taste like real meat. The only animal involved is the one who donated cells in the first place. Did any of the alternative names listed above intrigue you or turn you off? Names are important. They can make or break a food category. The final arbiter in the USA will be the FDA.

Why do we need real meat that doesn’t come from an animal? First, we could eat a nice piece of meat without thinking about the about the animal who gave its life for our meal. Second, eating animal-based foods contribute to health problems. Third, cultured meat is more sustainable as far as land required and emission release. There is merit to these arguments, but there are some problems as well. Keep reading.

chicken thighs with skin roasting on the grill
Will cultured meat be able to replicate these roasted chicken thighs?         Photo by Kelsey Tenney

How it’s made. The process starts by harvesting cells from an animal. Addition of hormones produces muscle cells. The culture undergoes rapid growth in a bioreactor. Mechanical separation creates replicas of uncooked beef steak, pork roast, or turkey breast. Culturing realistic tissues that look like a real cut of meat uses scaffolding. A new process may eliminate the presence of a scaffold.

Animal welfare is a concern for many. It is a prime motivation for vegans. Some omnivores suffer mixed feelings. Most meat eaters don’t even think about it. A shift toward cellular agriculture means less suffering of sentient beings.

The nutritional value of animal-free meat may not change much. The levels of protein, vitamins, and minerals will be like those coming from the animal. Eating a vegetarian or strict-vegan diet may not provide the nutrients needed to thrive. Proponents of clean meat suggest that cells could be grown with less saturated fat. Major modification of fats could make profound changes in flavor and succulence. Expect the synthetic meat to be similar in nutritional quality as real meat.

Sustainability gains need a major shift away from animal protein. Let’s aim for a world-wide reduction of farm animals by 50% by 2035. Is it possible? I don’t know. If we don’t start soon, it will never happen. Insect and plant protein could contribute to this shift. True meat eaters will need more incentive than insect-based or plant-based meats. Less farm animals will free up agricultural land. Land will be necessary for fermentation tanks but much less than needed for grazing. Will these lands revert to natural habit for wildlife? Some will and others will not. Emissions, with particular attention to ruminants, will be lower. But is that all there is to the story? Keep reading.

Safety improves with lab-grown meat. Animal slaughter is not a pretty picture. I have observed the act in beef, pork, and chicken plants. Fecal material contaminates meat during the operation. Raw meat is a safety risk. Cell cultures can become contaminated, but the dangers are not as threatening. Quality Assurance practices can prevent questionable product from leaving the processing plant.

Flavor, color, and texture are critical for acceptance of in vitro meat products. Commercial products are not available now. I would try them if I could. If my eating experience does not live up to my expectations, I will not be as daring the next time. Price will also be a factor for many consumers.

Concerns abound in the discussion about fake meats. Will these products be ultra-processed? It is hard to say. Fermented products tend to have shorter ingredient lists than non-fermented ones. In the United States it depends on the labeling regulations promulgated by FDA. Remember that ultra-processing is more about ingredients and less about processes. Opponents will claim that the process is not natural. How different is it to culture meat and culture cheese? Other concerns include the genetic instability of the culture. That is a characteristic that will need careful monitoring within the plant. Make-or-break status for the category will come down to regulations. Will FDA and other regulatory bodies consent to a name that attracts consumers? How will these agencies regulate the labeling of the products?

Some studies suggest the sustainability dividend will be less than projected. Donator animals prevent the need to produce and slaughter many animals. The life of a donor animal may not be any better than a regular farm animal. Then there are some confounding variables. Will vegans accept animal-free meat products? Will the religious restrictions about eating beef or pork hold for cellular meats?

Current status. Cultured meat has a science-fiction tinge to it. It is not available at the local supermarket. Singapore may start producing and selling cultured seafood this year. China promises cultured meatballs in the not too distant future. More cultured beef, pork, and chicken products may not be here soon. It took many years for plant-based meats gain traction in markets. Expect it to take a long time for clean meats to gain a foothold in most markets. Experience with plant-based meats might help pave the way for these new synthetic meats. Regulatory structures are in place in both the United States and Europe. Important details need clarification. Success of these products depends on cost and capturing a true meat-eating experience.

My entry in the naming contest for the product category? Unreal meat!

Next week: Challenges to feeding the world from now to 2050

Reference:

Hong, T.K., D.-M. Shin, J. Choi, J.T. Do, and S.G. Han, 2021. Current issues and technical advances in cultured meat production: A review. Food Sci Anim Resour 41(3): 355-372. https://www.kosfaj.org/archive/view_article?pid=kosfa-41-3-355

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