Wider interest and backing from the food industry could help boost developments in lab grown meat technology, but for now the idea may be 'too revolutionary' for manufacturers to gamble on, said experts at the launch of the world's first in vitro burger.
Professor Mark Post, the researcher behind the world's first lab-grown meat, said that he hopes the global emphasis that yesterday's Cultured Beef event in London gained will make the food industry pay attention to, and get involved in, the research and development of in vitro meat - which has until now been funded primarily through philanthropic support.
Speaking at the launch of the lab grown beef burger yesterday Professor Post was questioned on why the research and development behind his Cultured Beef , and other similar projects around the world, have been primarily philanthropic - rather than being driven by technical and industrial investments from industry.
Post commented:"You will have to ask the industry why they are not interested in this, or at least not investing in it."
Lack of backing
"We have talked to a number of food companies, and also intermediate companies that supply raw materials that could be interesting for us, but so far we were not that lucky," said the Dutch researcher responsible for the creation of the €250,000+ 'proof of principle' burger that was cooked and tasted in front of an invite-only audience in London yesterday .
"I think food companies in general, no offence, are trying to stay away from really revolutionary improvements," said Post, adding that timing may have been another reason that industry has so far held back in pursuing lab grown meat.
"Gradually some companies have started to become interested, and I hope this worldwide emphasis on this technology may foster that."
Speaking to FoodNavigator at the Cultured Beef launch event Isha Datar, director of New Harvest - a non-profit research organisation to advance alternatives to conventionally produced meat - said that many food companies are simply not suited for the sort of biological research that is needed currently.
"There's a lot of bacterial fermentation, and bioreactor cultures. But I guess it's the fact that it's mammalian cells that's new," said Datar. "Of course bacteria are far less fussy than mammalian cells."
Datar said that her experience of industry is that many wish to take a 'wait-and-see' approach.
"That's probably a good decision to make at this point, just because of the expense of all this introductory research that has to be done," she said, but noted that there is potential knowledge or methods of working that the food industry possesses which may be beneficial for the project in the future.
The world's first lab-grown burger
Now, we are able to provide a short video with highlights from the event.
Video credit: Maastricht University / Ogilvy PR
"We have run a number of calculations with one of the largest manufacturers of medical stem cells and we found actually very good conditions for it to scale up - and also make it an acceptable price," said Post.
"I am fairly confident that this can be mass scaled," he said - commenting that calculations currently show without any improvements a simple scaling up of the current technology would give a 'reasonable' price for the burgers.
Indeed he said that using current technology in vitro meat could be scaled up to produce commercial quantities at a price of around $70 per kilo(€53 per kilo), but suggested that price will be reduced with improvements in the technology - such as implementing recycling mechanisms and increasing the overall efficiency of the process.
"That gives me sufficient confidence that eventually we can scale it up and make it an affordable price."
While the unveiling and tasting of the first lab grown burger was an important first step towards the commercial production of beef that is cultured in a lab rather than taken from cows Professor Post said that the up-scalling and commercialisation of the product could still take between 10 and 20 years, as the research team face several 'technical bottlenecks.
One of the main technical issues, he noted, was the ability to grow fat: "It has been done for medical purposes. But with factors to differentiate the precursor cells in to fat that are not compatible with food production," said Post. "So we are trying to get around that."
He added that there is also still 'a major efficiency issue' with the cultured meat process, but said that investment and further development of the technology will bring greater efficiency.
"We developed this, basically for a sort of mass production of 100 or 200 burgers in a matter of two years and with a team of three or four people," said Post. "I guess it required a lot of money so we were thankful to have the funding - but it's actually not a long time or a large crowd working on it."
"It's not like it's an Apollo project where there's a whole bunch of scientists working on it," he commented.
"That alone, with very few people and in relatively short time we could create this, already attests to that we can come up with a viable solution within ten years."