Clean meatball
Memphis Meats has successfully produced beef, chicken and duck using its clean meat technology.

“I love what I do. What I do is I make meat.”

So declared Eric Schulze, Ph.D., a participant in “Clean Meat: Producing Meat Without Animals Using Cell-Culture Technology,” an enthusiastic panel discussion June 26 at IFT17, the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food exposition.

Schulze is senior scientist at Memphis Meats Inc., a San Francisco-based start-up company. His presentation was preceded by an overview of the clean meat field by moderator Liz Specht, Ph.D., senior scientist at the Good Food Institute, a not-for-profit organization established to support plant-based and cellular alternatives to animal products. Numerous companies, including Memphis Meats, are working to introduce “next-gen meat,” produced with no animal agriculture, animal raising or slaughter, Specht said.

Numerous factors are catalyzing investment in this new technology, she said.

Headlining this list are sustainability and resource use concerns, she said. Animal agriculture is the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions globally, and the growth of meat intake intensifies competition over resources between the world’s affluent and the world’s poor, Specht said. She cited a United Nations report expressing concern over the role of animal agriculture as a contributor to deforestation, water pollution and air pollution, locally and globally.

Health concerns associated with animal agriculture have been on the rise because of bacterial resistance to antibiotics.

“The age of antibiotics may be coming to an end in part because of low-level delivery to animals,” Specht said. She cited data indicating 75 percent of new diseases affecting humans over the past 10 years originated with animals.

Animal welfare has become a greater and greater concern in recent years, issues rooted in the inefficiency of meat production. For example, restricting the movement of animals to make meat production more efficient makes economic sense but has raised concern among the public.

Specht described issues of meat production as a “thermodynamic problem.”

“Most of an animal’s energy goes to metabolic functions, mechanical, respiration etcetera, not to producing meat,” she said. “The question is whether we can remove the animal from the picture and do this more efficiently.”

The production of a single steer requires 3 1/2 Olympic-size swimming pools of water to yield 440 lbs. of meat.

Slaughter free 

Clean meat is meat produced using cell cultures, rather than animal slaughter. The process begins with primary cells taken from a living or recently slaughtered animal. The cells are then cultured and multiply and are then directed to become the constituent parts of meat – mycocytes (muscle), adipocytes (fat) and a handful of other materials such as fibroblasts and chrondrocytes (connective tissue) to provide structural integrity.

“These relative cell types are the same whether we are talking about a steak, or fish or something like chicken breast,” Specht said. “The ratios are different. The structural arrangement of the cell types are different. And, of course the species of origin are different, but what we’re talking about here is the ability to grow these cells in a platform portable to many different products and species of animals.”

The dream of clean meat is not new, Specht said, citing Winston Churchill in 1931 predicting that within 50 years “we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing.”

The technology advanced slower than Churchill predicted but has progressed rapidly over the last 15 years, especially the most recent five, thanks to gains in the biomedical field, Specht said.

“Technology came from cell therapy, where we grew cell cultures for therapy; gene therapy and the regenerative medicine field,” she said. She cited a 2017 report from the National Academies of Sciences predicting clean meat as an area of “high growth potential.”

In addition to numerous active business start-ups in the clean meat field Specht cited (including Memphis Meats, Modern Meadow, SuperMeat, Finless Foods, Integriculture), several additional companies are in “stealth mode,” not yet publicizing their work.