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Special edition: Meat alternatives

Taking cultured meat from petri to plate: ‘People don’t eat experiments’

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 07-Aug-2012

Dr. Nicholas Genovese is one of a handful of scientists around the world working on what he calls cultured meat, producing “real meat from real animal cells, without the animal issue”. His goal is to optimize the sustainability, food safety, and ultimately, affordability of in vitro meat.

A visiting scholar at the University of Missouri, Genovese stresses that he is not producing food, but working on fundamental research into how to optimize the production of meat without animals. Eventually he hopes that cultured meat could be produced on a large scale to eliminate the animal welfare, environmental and health concerns many people associate with traditional livestock-based meat production systems. But cost is still a big factor.

“When you talk about optimization we need to get the price down,” he said. “It’s very expensive in the lab…We have to make very inexpensive culture media.”

Animal-free production

Research into producing animal tissues in laboratories has been going on for a couple of decades, but it is only in recent years that scientists have started referring to these products as ‘meat’. Genovese said that the ultimate goal is to use early stage stem cells to grow meat for food, removing animal slaughter from the meat production process, as well as the need for in vitro meat production systems to go to back to an animal source for cell biopsies.

“When it is produced it’s going to be produced from a feedstock stem cell source,” he said. “…Instead of isolating adult stem cells from animal biopsies, early stage stem cells can divide infinitely so you don’t have to go back to the animal source.”

Bringing the meat to the market

Leading the charge to bring a lab-produced burger to the market is Dr. Mark Post at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, while Dr. Genovese is more concerned with ensuring that cultured meats are sustainable and ethically produced, with optimized health profiles – and, above all, that they are eventually affordable for meat-eaters and vegetarians alike.

“For cultured meat, it is important that it enters the market, but it needs to be at a time when it has benefits for consumers,” Genovese said. “…He [Post] has a short term goal to get a product to market, but I have a long-term goal to optimize the process.”

Post’s lab-produced burger has been funded by a €250,000 ($310,000) anonymous grant – a price that keeps it off the grill for most ordinary people.  Celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal has agreed to cook the burger when it is finally ready for consumption, in October.

Responding to demand

Optimizing this process means creating a viable response to an increasing global appetite for animal protein, and the many associated concerns about increasing meat production.

“People don’t eat experiments, so anything in the long term won’t be produced in a lab,” Genovese said.

“…There are many different issues that this touches on: The environmental impact, public health burden, animal welfare, and the issue of food prices and food security. Demand for meat is expected to increase about 60% by 2050 and these various impacts are only going to increase during this time.”

Research from the UK’s Oxford University has previously suggested that that the process of in vitro meat production could mean a 35-60% reduction in energy consumption, in addition to requiring 98% less land and producing 80-95% less greenhouse gas than conventional farming.

Genovese also notes that meat grown in vitro could be fine-tuned to produce specific dietary benefits, including culturing the meat to be high in omega-3 fatty acids or fiber, for example, depending on what is used as the culture medium.

Other benefits could include greatly reducing the incidence of foodborne pathogens, considering that it must be grown in aseptic conditions; reducing animal to human transmission of emerging infectious diseases; and even reducing chronic disease associated with meat consumption.

“There may be problems that are inherent to meat but there can be options for producing meats that are healthier,” Genovese said. “…I think the goal needs to be producing a product that is acceptable to meat eaters and vegetarians alike.”

However, funding remains a crucial issue for researchers to enable the concept to move out of the lab and into grocery stores.

“The number one variable is research funding,” he said.

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