According to Eric Schulze. Ph.D., it takes 23 grams of energy to produce a single gram of meat.
While each company has its own proprietary technology, the basic building blocks of clean meat production are consistent from one company to the next, Specht said. The two-step process begins with putting animal cells into a cell proliferation bioreactor where, fed by a nutrient solution (cell culture media), the cells multiply.
The second step is scaffolding, which provides a support structure for cellular adherence, Specht said. The scaffolding material must be edible or biodegradable and serves as the medium where the cells differentiate into the various kinds of component cells (muscle, fat and connective tissue) that make up meat.
“New inputs into the media signal the cells what they should become,” Specht said. “The scaffold provides biomedical cues and gives spatial control.” She said the scaffolding helps provide heterogeneity, a desired quality in meat – in which no two bites of a steak are exactly identical.
The inefficiency of current methods of meat production were emphasized by Schulze. Noting that plants are able to convert sunlight into energy at a 10 percent efficiency rate, animals then eat the plants, also converting into energy at most a 10 percent efficiency rate. Finally, people consume meat, converting into energy at a rate of at most 10 percent.
“So, 0.1 percent of sunlight is converted into us,” he said. “It’s very inefficient. We can do better.”
While optimistic about the future of clean meat, Schulze said there is no prospect for the end of animal agriculture.
“The world will not stop consuming meat,” he said. “We are not trying to eliminate meat. It is a growing market.”
Schulze said demand for meat is expected to double by the year 2050, further straining already stretched production resources.
Noting that the global meat market is valued at $750 billion per year, for context he said that compares with a global smart phone market worth $430 billion per year.
Expanding on Specht’s comments about sustainability, Schulze said production of a single 1,600-lb. steer from birth to shelf requires 3½ Olympic sized swimming pools of fresh water to yield 440 lbs. of beef. Using clean meat technology, 440 lbs. of meat may be produced with only a single bathtub of water, he said.
Speaking about progress made to date at Memphis Meat, Schulze said the company’s production of meatballs, duck meat and chicken meat was a great validation of the potential for the technology.
“We showed we can do mammals and avians,” he said, adding that muscle function is vastly different between birds and mammals.
He said a Wall Street Journal writer who tasted the product described it as delicious.
“Currently, it takes 23 grams of energy to produce a single gram of meat,” Schulze said. “Our goal is to produce a gram of meat with 3 grams of energy.”
Longer term, the nutrient brew used to cultivate clean meat may be customized for healthfulness, incorporating vitamins and minerals and with the fatty acid tissue optimized, Schulze said.
Healthfulness also will come in the absence of pathogens, he said.
“There are trillions of bacteria at the grocery store,” he said.
Schulze said with the elimination of pathogenic bacteria, clean meat will have longer shelf life.
“Our products do not spoil at a normal rate,” he said. “They last much longer in storage. Upward of weeks. The one thing that will make our product go bad or spoil is light, not bacteria.”
While Memphis Meat is looking to commercialize its product by 2020-21, bringing down the cost of production will be key. Costs have been lowered from $18,000 per pound 1½ years ago to $6,000 three months ago and $3,800 most recently. Ultimately, the company is seeking to produce clean meat at cost parity with conventional products.
Clearing misperceptions about clean meat was the subject of the final panelist’s presentation. Rebecca Cross, an attorney with Davis White Tremaine LLP, San Francisco, said clean meat is a food, not a drug or an additive. She said regulators are aware of and ready for clean meat, which will be regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
Still, the potential for regulatory confusions exists, she said. Currently, open faced sandwiches are regulated by the US Department of Agriculture while closed sandwiches are regulated by the FDA. Sausage is regulated by the USDA, and sausage casing is regulated by the FDA. Pizza is regulated by the FDA, but pepperoni pizza may be regulated by either.
In the case of clean meat, the FDA is expected to have responsibility given that the USDA has oversight where live animals are processed and doesn’t have authority where they are not.
What's in a name?
In questions and answers following the presentation, the panelists were asked whether the meat industry may challenge the name “clean meat” given its implication that conventional meat is unclean. Specht said the industry was not yet committed to the name clean meat but was anxious to avoid a name that is a turnoff for consumers.
“This has been a very robust area of discussion within the field, in terms of what do we call it,” she said. “It’s meat, but we want to differentiate because it is really meat plus. A lot of different terms have been used over the years, including some that are automatically cringe-worthy and would not appeal to consumers like ‘lab-grown meat’ or ‘in vitro meat’ or ‘meat 2.0.’ There is certainly a consumer angle. Cultured meat has been used a lot, especially in the food science community.”
Consumer studies have shown the term clean meat is more likely to generate trust among consumers.
“The reasoning behind it is a nod to the concept of clean energy in that this process is cleaner in terms of environmental footprint and cleaner in terms of bacterial contamination,” she said. “So it is clean in a lot of ways.”
Still, Specht said the field is open to suggestions to other terms that capture the essence of how the product is different from conventional meat.