RESEARCH AND INNOVATION

Clean Meat: An Upcoming Food Technology Revolution

 
January 7, 2020

Technological advances are driving a new era of personalization. From health care to the food and beverage industry, personalization has become the new customer expectation. The rise of lifestyle-driven health conditions such as diabetes, obesity and cardiac issues makes catering food to individual requirements inevitable. Moreover, the longevity of human life is adding to the pressure on the global food market with food requirements being estimated to at least double by 2025.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock agriculture for meat is responsible for 18% of global greenhouse gases emissions, which is more than the combined exhaust of all transportation.  As the existing food industry, which relies on classic agricultural processes, is unable to keep up with rising demand, alternative food agriculture methodologies must be explored. A plant-based meat alternative was successfully introduced in the market by ‘Impossible Foods, which produced the “impossible burger”.  It appeared to have satisfied environmentalists, but not the gourmet palate.

Cultured meat: An alternative

A global shift towards cultured meat from farm-reared meat could reduce harmful emissions by a staggering 96%, according to an Oxford University study. In vitro, cultured, or clean meat is meat “grown” in a sterile, laboratory environment using the principles of cellular agriculture, without killing the animal. A small biopsy from a healthy donor animal holds potential for the culturing of humongous amounts of meat on petri plates. Cells preceding the muscle cells are harvested and cultured in the lab in a system mimicking the animal environment, with added growth factors that help in the proliferation of the cells to proper muscle tissues, resulting in a piece of meat that is ready to be cooked. Memphis Meats USA produced the first lab-grown meatball in 2015 as well as poultry dishes such as fried chicken and duck l’orange, in March 2017, which tasted no different from traditional meat. The clean meat industry can thus mimic farm-reared meat in taste and make it more nutritious through customization.

Why is clean meat not on supermarket shelves?

A major hurdle in the path of clean meat production is cost. Memphis Meats had to spend a whopping $2,400 per pound of meat produced7. With organizations like the Good Food Institute and SuperMeat creating awareness and funding clean meat research, academic institutions and startups are focusing on improving clean meat technology. Apart from the cost factor is also the confusion over whether the FDA or USDA will regulate the product. Furthermore, there is also the issue of public perception. Getting rid of the consumer mental block towards accepting lab-grown meat as food is one of the biggest marketplace challenges clean meat faces.

Immense potential for research and development

3D bio printing

Production of clean meat involves the differentiation of stem cells into muscle cells using chemical/biological cues in culture media and mechanical stimulation. Developing scaffolds to grow the differentiated cells into muscle tissue could potentially be achieved through innovations in 3D printing.

Transgenic bacteria and customized meat options

The media used for growth of the cells is an area of concern as it is currently isolated from bovine blood (fetal bovine serum), restricting its consumption in parts of the world as it defies the purpose of growing meat without the use of animal sources. Creating transgenic bacterial species that generate recombinant proteins like growth factors and hormones could solve the issue. Furthermore, transgenic bacterial species could be designed to develop the cultured meat to be more nutritious, less fatty and better tasting. Deep sequence analysis and in silico engineering of the bacterial genome to obtain optimal transgenic bacterial cultures would be the key players in the future of cultured meat.  

Involvement of IT and R&D labs

Nanotechnology and robotics also have a role to play in the creation of nano robots or assemblers that can aid in forming meat structure. Technology companies  that have research arms providing genomics research and analysis services as well as robotics research and development labs can now innovate with other research units, biotech companies and startups worldwide to serve the common cause of developing customized/personalized cultured meat to address our current as well as future food, health and environment-related crises.

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Dr Poulami Chaudhuri received her PhD in toxicogenomics from King's College, London, in 2016.  A molecular biologist by profession, Poulami has used her skills in solving DNA based puzzles using bioinformatics. Her research interests include DNA computing, variant studies in human genome and identifying genetic markers for prevalent lifestyle diseases.