🧫 From Lab to Plate: How cultivated meat is made #19
Part 2 of a 3 part series about cultivated meat
Hey there 🤗
Welcome to the second part of the From Lab to Plate series where we are diving into all things cultivated meat.
Last time we looked at our obsession with meat and how cultivated meat could play a key role in reducing the impact. Today we are looking at how cultivated meat is actually made and how the cost has progressed over the years. In the final part we will, for the first time in ‘tings history, talk to an expert. We’ll have the chance to talk to one of the first investors in Mosa Meat.
Mosa Meat is one of the pioneers in cultivated meat and was co-founded by Mark Post, the creator of the first cultivated meat burger.
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🔬 How is cultivated meat actually made?
There are 4 main steps to create cultivated meat:
Obtaining a sample from the animal you are trying to grow
Isolating and nourishing the required cells
Growing the cells by providing the right environment and nutrients
Harvesting and preparing the meat for consumption.
The building blocks for growing cultivated meat are stem cells from the animal or meat you want to replicate. These stem cells can be extracted, in most cases*, without killing or even harming the animal. Depending on what kind of meat you want to produce you will need different kinds of cells. The most powerful are pluripotent stem cells, taken from early stage embryos through blood samples, which have the ability to differentiate into multiple kinds of cells. More specialized stem cells can also be extracted through muscle, skin, or organ samples to produce specific products. Startups are already trying to cultivate a broad variety of products beyond the obvious chicken, beef, and pork. A French startup, Gourmey, is working on cultivating foie gras; Hoxton Farms, a UK-startup, is cultivating animal fat; and the US/Indian startup Brown Foods is trying to create cultivated milk.
*To comply with Halal or Kosher certifications stem cell samples will have to be extracted following those religious food laws.
Once samples have been taken from an animal you have to isolate viable cell lines. Deriving and characterizing new cell lines can take anywhere from 6-18 months, but the good thing is that these starter cells can then replicate virtually infinitely over time (kind of like a very sophisticated sourdough starter). Wildtype, a Californian startup growing sushi-grade salmon started off with a sample from a singular tiny juvenile salmon that has allowed them to grow hundreds of pounds of salmon so far, with the potential to grow many millions more. The salmon that they have managed to make looks incredible 😍
Image: Pictures of Wildtype’s salmon; Source: Wildtype
To get to something like what Wildtype has created you need a little more than just the right starter cells, you need to provide them with the right nutrients and environment to grow. These nutrients are delivered through a broth called the growth media. The growth media contains essential nutrients like glucose, salts, vitamins, amino acids, lipids, proteins, and hormones which allows the starter cells to proliferate (the science-y term for rapid reproduction). It may sound complicated but the same stuff helps normal animals grow. In this case we are just growing the parts we eat, which eliminates a great deal of waste.
In the past, the growth media was derived from something called Fetal Bovine Serum (FBS), which is extracted from the blood of unborn baby cows. FBS is widely used in pharmaceutical research and was used in early cultivated meat production for its potency. The first ever cultivated meat that was approved for sale in Singapore was made with FBS. However, due to its cost and unethical nature a large majority of cultivated meat startups, including Eat Just who produced that first approved meat, have already shifted away from it. Mosa Meat were able to reduce their growth media costs by 88x by developing a plant-based alternative.
The growth media gets fed into big steel tanks comparable to the ones used to make beer, kombucha, or insulin. These tanks, called bioreactors, control the flow of the growth media, the temperature, and oxygen levels to ensure that the cells have the optimal environment to proliferate.
Cells in animals rely on the extracellular matrix, a kind of blueprint and structure for cells to grow into and differentiate. If cells detach from the extracellular matrix they are programmed to die. To avoid cell death in cultivated meat production scaffolds are used to mimic the function of the extracellular matrix. Scaffolds can be made out of cellulose, textured vegetable proteins, or any number of other abundant and affordable food-safe materials. The challenge with scaffolds is the increasing complexity that comes with growing larger pieces of meat like steaks or fish fillets.
An added benefit of cultivated meat is that it takes just 5-7 weeks to reach the necessary cell density to harvest, which is a lot faster than the 2-3 years for beef, 3 years for farmed salmon, and 6 months for pork. Chicken is the one meat that competes with the speed of cultivated meat, taking just 6-12 weeks. Once harvested and processed cultivated meat is largely the same as conventional meat.
💸 How much does cultivated meat cost?
The first lab grown burger patty was grown in 2013 by Mark Post and cost €200k to make (financed by Google co-founder Sergei Brin). Since then the brilliant minds at Mosa Meat have managed to reduce the cost to around €9 per burger (this figure is from 2019 so we can assume it is even lower now). Future Meat, who raised the largest funding round ($347M) of any cultivated meat company in history can produce 450g of chicken for €7.29. To contrast that with conventional chicken, 450g of meat would cost just €0.63 to produce in Germany.
Calculation: To produce 450g of edible meat you need 678g of live weight chicken (the weight before slaughter), as only 66.4% of a chicken is edible. Based on the average production cost in Germany of €0.93 per kg of live weight chicken, producing 450g of edible meat costs €0.63.
The cost of producing cultivated meat still has a long way to go to compete with conventional meats, but the pace at which it is decreasing is promising. Further advancements in scaffold design, growth media formulation, and bioreactors will all be key to reduce the cost of growing cultivated meat.
One way to accelerate this would be by diverting the money the EU spends on advertising European meat to fund cultivate meat instead. In the past five years, the EU, despite its climate and net zero ambitions, spent over €140M to promote meat products 🤯
I for one am looking forward to seeing how this industry develops and talking to our guest for the final part of the From Lab to Plate series.
Until next time, much love,
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🧐 Unless specifically sourced within text a majority of my research came through the Good Food Institute’s deep dive into the science of cultivated meat, What is Cultivated Meat?, and general knowledge from previously researching the topic.
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