Meat made in the laboratory – the future of food?

The introduction of science and technology into our food chain has opened up an array of possibilities that were previously confined to the realms of science fiction. An emerging concept is in vitro meat or cultured meat for human consumption. This involves manufacturing meat in a cell culture through tissue engineering and process technologies. A cell culture is the process of growing cells in a controlled environment and under controlled conditions i.e. in a laboratory and at a certain temperature.  

The Science of Culturing Meat

The process of culturing meat begins by taking embryonic myoblasts (a type of cell that gives rise to muscle cells) or adult skeletal satellite cells and proliferating them in a nutrient rich medium. It essentially has the same cell type as conventional meats as cells are derived from farm animals. Once an adequate number of cells are proliferated, they are attached to a scaffold or carrier, such as a collagen meshwork or microcarrier beads, and infused in a solution of nutrients. The development of muscle tissue is attachment-dependent, hence the need for a scaffold or carrier. The resulting muscle fibres (most probably skeletal muscle as this is the most edible) may then be harvested, cooked and consumed as meat. There is still uncertainty on how the nutritional and aesthetic qualities of cultured meat compare to conventional meat.

There are several technical challenges of culturing meat as it is still in its infancy. It is difficult to replicate the taste and texture of unprocessed and highly structured meats, such as steak and pork chops, due to the need for vascularisation. However, the process of producing cultured meat in its processed form, such as sausages and chicken nuggets, is less complex due to their less complex structure.

Cultured meat is as unnatural as bread, cheese, yoghurt and wine. They all involve processing ingredients from natural sources.

Genetic modification is not necessary for the production of cultured meat. However, it may be possible to utilise genetic engineering to improve certain processes of culturing meat i.e. to increase the proliferation rate of cells in culture.

Issues with conventional meat production; the case for in vitro meat

Environmental

Global meat production is projected to double by 2050, with the majority of growth expected to occur in developing countries. Potential consequences of this increase, based on current economic principles and agricultural and farming methods, include an increase rate of deforestation in order to make way for livestock grazing and feedcrop production, livestock-induced degradation of land and further water depletion and biodiversity loss.

Livestock is also a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane). In terms of carbon dioxide emissions, it is estimated to account for 18% of global warming effects – this is more than the transportation sector. Livestock is also responsible for the emission of polluting gases not associated with climate change, such as ammonia from livestock waste. Pesticide contamination of water and soil from animal feed production is also an area of concern.

Occupational, Health & Safety

The consumption of animal fats is associated with nutrition related diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Such diseases are responsible for a third of global mortality.

Large scale farming, the packed and confined spaces animals are raised in and the global transportation of animal products have resulted in foodborne infection epidemics, such as Salmonella, pathogenic E.coli and Avian influenza. Food pathogens pose a serious risk to human health, causing food poisoning and are even associated with long-term ailments, such as heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease and kidney damage. The transmission of food pathogens begin in feedlots where animals feed on contaminated food and water, caused by living amongst manure. The spread of pathogens continues in slaughterhouses where the following scenarios are potentially responsible for the contamination of meat:

  • Animal hide has been inadequately cleaned, hence any dirt and manure residue may fall into the meat;
  • Contents of an animal’s digestive system may spill every where if gutters do not perform their job properly;
  • Workers failing to clean and disinfect knives due to the rapid speed of the production line;
  • Overworked workers neglecting the importance of good hygiene i.e. dropping meat on the floor and then placing it back on the conveyor belt;
  • Using meat from worn-out animals. These animals are most likely to be diseased and contain high levels of antibiotic residues;
  • Mixing animal meat, i.e. when meat is processed into ground beef, has been attributed to the spread of food pathogens such as E-coli. The meat in a burger can come from dozens or even hundreds of different cattle.

The slaughterhouse is a dangerous workplace; the knife is the most important tool and workers are overworked. Occupational injuries such as lacerations, tendinitis, back problems, shoulder problems and carpal tunnel syndrome are common. There are also more catastrophic injuries, such as missing fingers, broken bones, deep lacerations and amputated limbs. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that some workers are pressured not to report injuries as the annual bonuses of foreman and supervisors are partly based on injury rates.

Social & Economic

In the United States, in order to meet the demands of fast food and supermarket chains, meatpacking companies have cut costs by cutting wages. This has created an industry that is dependent on a migrant industrial workforce working on low wages. Social problems that have arisen include the formation of ghettos, crime, poverty, homelessness and drug abuse.

Animal Ethics

Feedlots leave virtually no room for animals to roam; they eat grain from concrete troughs. The grain fattens the animal quickly. The process of fattening the animal produces a significant amount of waste (urine and manure) which is merely dumped into pits called “lagoons”. Animals housed in feedlots are raised in an environment that does not resemble their natural habitat; they get little exercise; live amongst manure; and feed on dirty food and water. The industrialized nature of meat production has little regard for the welfare of animals and animals are treated as a capitalistic commodity.

Inefficient use of resources

Significantly more energy is needed to obtain nutrients from animal sources compared to plant sources. Considerable energy is expended on housing, transporting and slaughtering animals; transporting and processing feed grains; and transporting and processing meat. In addition, obtaining meat from animals uses considerably more cropland, water, fertiliser and pesticides than plants.

Potential Advantages of In vitro Meat

Cultured meat has the potential to be healthier, safer and more environmentally friendly than conventional meat.

  • Fat content can be controlled and modified in a way that favours the ratio of poly-unsaturated fats (good fats associated with lowering blood cholesterol) to saturated fats (bad fats associated with heart disease).
  • Significant reduction in foodbourne diseases due to the strict quality control rules which are easier to implement and monitor in a controlled environment compared to an animal farm, slaughterhouse or meatpacking plant.
  • More efficient use of energy, land and water compared to conventional meat production
  • Reduction in waste produced i.e. no need to grow inedible parts of animals such as bones   
  • Reduction in green house gas emissions
  • Reduction in human exposure to pesticides, arsenic, dioxins and hormones associated with conventional meat
  • Reduction in the number of animals used. In theory, a single animal can produce the world’s meat supply;
  • No animals are killed or harmed – it is possible to extract a muscle biopsy and culture the isolated cells.

From concept to commercial reality

Cultured meat is not yet available commercially. It will probably be some time before it is commercially available as the technologies needed to produce cultured meat are still in development. The cost of producing cultured meat is unclear, but it has been estimated to cost $5 million based on the use of current technologies and production on a small scale. So right now cultured meat is not commercially viable – this was initially the case with technologies like the internet and freeze-dried foods. Through extensive research and development, the cost of producing products and technologies, such as the internet, were reduced in several orders of magnitude and this made mass production possible – this could also be the case for cultured meat.

Sources

Web:

www.new-harvest.org

www.new-harvest.org/img/files/Invitro.pdf

http://invitromeat.org

Books:

Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser - a captivating insight into the social, economic, political and cultural aspects that shape the modern food industry.

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