When I wrote about the three mistakes people make about cultivated meat — comparing its current price to that of traditional (and subsidized) meat, comparing cultivated meat to a perfect world, and betting against progress — I also pointed out the industry does have real challenges:
- Growing more than muscle fibers in order to make complex meats, like steaks.
- Cultivating meat at scale.
- Getting regulatory and political approval.
I investigated those challenges for Nieuwe Oogst, a Dutch agrarian magazine. Here is a summary for English readers.
1. Growing more than muscle
So far companies have been able to grow muscle fibers from animal cells. That means they can cultivate nuggets, patties and sausages, but not more complex meats, like steaks.
Dwayne Holmes, the EU director for responsible research and innovation at New Harvest, a research institute, explained the challenge to me:
Making complex structures is not just about having the right cell types (grown separately), but rather is dependent on having some method where cells can assemble, grow and mature in the 3D shapes and structures one sees in traditional meat.
Different companies are taking different approaches to this. The use of “scaffolds”, usually made from animal-derived collagen or gelatin, is a popular method. The downside is that it gives the end product a slightly different texture than meat from slaughtered animals.
Cultured steaks may still be some years away. “We estimate it will take a while before those reach the Dutch market,” a spokeswoman for the Dutch meat industry lobby (COV) told me.
Short term, both they and Holmes see potential in mixed products: partly cultivated, partly plant-based. They would initially compete with vegetarian meat substitutes, but Holmes believes they may eventually tempt carnivores as well:
It is possible that cell components would add sufficient sensory profiles that the hybrids compare and end up competing with traditional meat products.
Agricultural and meat lobbies elsewhere have disparaged cultivated meat as “fake”, unethical, unhealthy and a threat to farmers. COV is more pragmatic, saying,
It would be naive to presume there won’t be a market for cultivated meat in the future.
2. Cheaper feed, bigger bioreactors
Much hinges on the industry’s ability to scale up. One challenge is feed. Mosa Meat, a Dutch company, can grow up to 160,000 burgers from one gram of animal cells. The cells are fed nutrients and vitamins in a biotank matching those cows would derive from eating grass and feed.
But nutrients are expensive. Mosa Meat and the Dutch animal nutrition company Nutreco have received an EU grant to develop cheaper alternatives.
The bioreactors are the other scale-up challenge. Most companies use tanks of 50 liters, which give them 5 kilograms of meat. Meatable, Mosa Meat’s competitor, estimates that 10,000-liter tanks are needed in order to compete with the livestock industry.
They have partnered with DSM, which already builds bioreactors for pharmaceutical companies. In America, Good Meat says it is planning to build tanks of 250,000 liters.
Whether that’s possible, and whether it will be profitable to cultivate meat at such a scale, is still uncertain.
3. Regulatory and political approval
In July, the United States became the second country in the world after Singapore to approve the sale of cultivated meat. Israel could become the third: its regulators are assessing applications by food companies. Israel’s Aleph Farms has also submitted an application in Switzerland.
Europe would fall behind. What makes it stand out is that the EU approval process involves not just regulators, but politicians.
It is unlikely the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) would reject a product that has been found safe by its counterparts in America, Israel and Singapore. But once the EFSA signs off, the application goes to the council of European agriculture ministers, who decide if the product can come on the EU market. It only takes four member states, representing 35 percent of the EU population, to block market access.
Italy has preemptively banned cultivated meat. France is skeptical as well. Together they have 28 percent of the EU population.
No wonder companies like Meatable are shifting their production to Singapore.