David Brandes told FoodNavigator that while the COVID-19 pandemic “is a setback” in the short term, drying up potential customers’ cash flow and delaying innovation projects, the crisis will give rise to a “new normal” and in the long term could hasten the trend among consumers of seeking foods with perceived sustainability and environmentally-friendly credentials.
“I think COVID-19 is an accelerator for what we do: not every business is in such a beneficial situation,” he said. "COVID-19 will definitely be an accelerator on the conscious consumer patterns that we see unfolding. As the consumer gets more conscious, we also see more interest in sustainable, locally produced food systems solutions. Cultured meat is at the forefront of that because [conventional] meat is the prime producer of greenhouse gas emissions globally.”
Peace of mind
Meanwhile, as scientists reckon close contact with wild animals through hunting, trade or habitat loss puts the world at increased risk of outbreaks of new diseases, consumers could be attracted to lab-grown meat’s safety credentials.
“COVID, and also SARS or MERS, Spanish flu and BSE: those are all of zoonotic origin,” continued Brandes. “They have all spilled over from animals to humans by consumption of the flesh by humans.”
He contends that cultured meat, however, offers a solution to consumers seeking the flavour of meat whilst completely eliminating any risk of viral infections. “Because we are working with cell lines under a clinical environment, there's no cross contamination. Cells are screened for irregularities and the environment is completely aseptic and sterile. There is no way any virus could form in this production system.”
Belgium-based start-up Peace of Meat was founded in 2019 by Dirk von Heinrichshorst, Eva Sommer and David Brandes with the help of private finance and a €3.6m grant from the Flemish government. It grows non-GMO cultured chicken and duck fat in a 200 square metre facility near Brussels. It has built a team of leading experts in animal cell culturing and food technology, including Prof. Paul Mozdziak, an authority in the field of vertebrate cell culturing and stem cells.
Its plan is to begin supplying the fat to a small number of food producers in the fourth quarter of this year. The hope is that the food brands use the fat as a tasty, yet sustainable ingredient in meat alternative products such as nuggets, burgers and meatballs that will appear on supermarket shelves by 2023. Target consumers are flexitarians and carnivores seeking to reduce their meat intake for health, ethical and environmental reasons. “Volumes will start with half a kilo, ramping up to double-digit kilo volume with an objective to start industrialised production runs in one and half years,” added Brandes.
The firm’s long-term plan envisages producing 100,000 tonnes of fat at a target price of $6 per kilo in 10 years. (The product has a current production cost of $350 per kilo.)
Why chicken and duck fat? First off, a great-tasting 3-dimensional cultured beef steak that can be produced on a mass scale and at low cost is “not possible in the next 25 years”, believes the co-founder. Avian fat is also tastier, he argues. Peace of Meat sees three reasons for its product choice: technical feasibility, functional aspects (health, taste and structure) and sustainability considerations.
"Cultured fat is what really drives the taste in a meat replacement product," he explained. The idea is that food manufacturers will mix the fat with a plant-based protein such as pea or soy to make a product that has the taste, texture, structure and mouthfeel that mimics the real thing as closely as possible. Avian fat, and especially duck fat, is the most premium and healthy of all animal fats, he added.
“As you're adding cultured fat you will get a lot closer to the taste,” he continued. “It's also much closer to the look and texture of actual meat because, as opposed to plant-based fats, animal fat is contained within cell walls.”
He added: "Current edible fats are mostly derived from unsustainable practices of monoculturing - for plant-based fats - or by-products from mass slaughtering - for animal-based fats."
The one structural problem with plant-based protein, he said, is that its fat melts away during cooking. That doesn’t happen with animal fat, which is completely contained within the cells and which doesn’t leave the product as it heats.
Chicken and duck fat therefore provide a completely different mouthfeel and culinary experience than if you're using plant-based fat. “It tastes different and behaves differently. The cultured fat works like real meat in that the fat exits when you bite into it, providing the flavour and juiciness of the real thing.”
War on meat
The approach taps into another consumer trend: a backlash against long ingredient lists and ultra-processed nature of many plant-based products on the market which resort to a host of additives and binders in a bid to solve the challenges of taste and texture.
"We're targeting the mass market because we know our product will offer full taste at a highly reduced ecological impact,” Brandes added. “We know that meat is responsible for 44% of the world's methane and 53% of the world's nitrous oxides. Cultured meat, according to Oxford University, can be produced at 96% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than livestock. So it is a more sustainable option at full taste for the flexitarian meat eater."
But is cultured meat really the most planetary healthy answer? Other studies suggest that that lab-grown meat could actually be worse for climate change owing to the CO2 released by the labs. CO2 lasts in the atmosphere for more than a century; methane only a dozen years.
Brandes’ rebuttal is that cultured meat will become more energy efficient in the future. "There are studies claiming that cultured meat will require more energy than livestock farming, but these don't factor in technological improvements over time… to assume there will be no efficiency improvements over time is completely unrealistic."
He stresses that cultured meat production is also far less water intensive than conventional meat production.
Make grub not war
Brandes, who was previously CCO of Switzerland's largest food retailer Migros Food Online, adds that Peace of Meat doesn’t have a beef with the livestock industry – hence the inspiration for the start-up’s pacifistic name. “We think that there is a place for everyone - both for meat producers but also for the plant-based and cultured meat industry,” he told us.
“There is a way that all of these three systems can co-exist peacefully, and we are already looking at how we can bring plant-based and cultured meat together. We also think the meat industry has a place - just not the mass farming aspect. We want to take out the ecological stress from livestock meat production. We are looking to bring peace to the meat industry.”
Cultured meat and immunity
Again looking further forward, Brandes also sees the sector potentially playing a role as consumers use the coronavirus experience to seek out foods that could potentially improve their health and boost their immune systems.
“What cultured meat is very capable of doing in the future is to personalise and individualise the nutritional profile to cater to various nutritional deficiencies,” he observed. “We could address various nutritional deficiencies by adding more vitamins, amino acids, and saturated and unsaturated fats depending on which market we are serving - and in the end it will result in boosting the immune system.”
He stressed though that Peace of Meat’s focus at present is on the challenge of taste, volume and lowering cost. "We’d love to get to a place where we can talk about functional properties and personalisation - but that's not for today."