CHICAGO – The benefits and opportunities of creating cultured beef outside of the animal was the topic of interest for hundreds of attendees of the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food exposition in Chicago. A July 12 presentation by Mark Post, MD, Ph.D., chairman of physiology and vice dean of biomedical technology at Maastricht Univ., Netherlands, explored the possibilities and progress that has been made by creating so-called test-tube beef. Post made headlines in 2013 when he orchestrated the first public tasting of a lab-grown hamburger, which cost more than $300,000 to create. The goal of the research is to discover alternatives to creating beef as the world’s population continues to grow, more societies become more affluent and demand more beef and growing concerns over the environmental impact and animal welfare associated with raising cattle.
“We are a species designed to love meat,” said Post, and the role of meat in the evolution of mankind has been a constant.
A Dutch government-funded program designed to investigate in-vitro meat got the attention of Post in 2008, after it had been the research focus of Willem van Eelen, who became ill in his late 80s. Post stepped in and took over supervising Ph.D. students working with van Eelen at the time and continued the research after its funding ended in 2010. Funding from a private partner kept the project moving forward as Post endeavored to create a processed meat product derived from the stem cells of cows.
In 2000, researchers discovered that animal muscle cells contained stem cells or, “satellite cells that are sitting there waiting to repair muscle in case of injury,” said Post, illustrating this with a slide of a microscopic view of the cells.
Allowing the protein created by the stem cells to grow for three weeks, researchers found it produces a muscle fiber that is microscopically identical to whole-muscle steak available at most supermarkets. Harvesting upwards of 10,000 of these fibers and combining them can ultimately create a hamburger, although it is void of fat.
After culturing 30 billion of these cells, a single hamburger was created using the method and Post orchestrated a public tasting in 2013 with plenty of fanfare. During what Post called a hybrid of a cooking show and a press conference the burger was presented in London.
The tasters reported that the product was “recognizably beef,” the texture was fine and the taste was so-so, Post said, primarily because it contained no fat. Since the tasting, Post and his team have been working to tweak the production process to address these issues. One goal is to make the cultured beef more less expensive to produce. Projections based on scaled up models of the culturing process currently indicate the cost could be as low as $65 per kg. Another goal is to make the process internally sustainable, which it isn’t now because it relies on a blood-based serum that is derived from live cows. Lastly, the product needs to better mimic traditional meat, “because we are a species designed to want meat and not meat replacers. It really has to mimic the real thing.”
All of these issues are being addressed, Post said, and will be the focus of a firm that will focus on the opportunities and perception issues affiliated with cultured beef and possibly meat from other species in the future.
“We are on the verge of starting a company to do the scale up and we will have more insight,” said Post, who also said he sees the potential for expanding the culturing technology to allow for the creation of muscle meats in a lab environment.
More details of Post’s fascinating research and the next steps for cultured beef and other proteins will be included in MEAT+POULTRY. Look for it in the August issue.