Memphis Meats scientist: The world is ready for clean meat
This article originally stated that it costs Memphis Meats nearly $9,000 to create a pound of cell-cultured chicken. This error has been fixed.
The company behind the world's first cell-cultured meatball and chicken strip said consumer demand for meat will grow despite the industry's fascination with plant-based protein alternatives.
"The world loves meat. The world is not going to stop eating meat," Eric Schulze, senior scientist at Memphis Meats, said Monday during a panel on animal-free meat at the Institute of Food Technologists conference in Las Vegas. "On any given day, 96% of the U.S. is eating meat, and the global demand for meat will double by 2050."
Schulze said this demand poses a huge market opportunity for protein producers. But the challenge for the traditional animal agricultural system is the majority of money made must go back into the the production process to pay for feed, medicine and other commodities while producers wait for cattle, pigs, chickens and other livestock to grow large enough for slaughter.
This opens up an opportunity for companies working to produce meat in a laboratory.
He argued the standard animal production cycle is just one of many inefficiencies the Bay Area startup, which was founded in 2015, hopes to eliminate through its production of cell-cultured or "clean" meat. Schulze estimated his process requires up to 90% less greenhouse gas emissions, land and water than conventionally-produced meat.
The company begins the creation of cell-cultured meat by selecting animals with optimal genetics, such as fast growth rates and above-average muscle heft. Cells are then selected from the animal via biopsy and can be combined with others taken from animals of the same breed to create a preferred flavor profile. Through a biopsy, a single animal's cells can lead to the production of meat that would normally take hundreds of food animals, Schulze said.
"The cells don't know they aren't in an animal anymore. We have to train them to realize that. We call it the 'second domestication.' "
Senior scientist at Memphis Meats
Cells are then arranged on scaffolds and fed a nutrient broth containing a combination of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, among other inputs, that cells need to grow. These nutrient mixes also contain signaling molecules called growth factors that "train" cells to react to the scaffold in different ways, creating complex, 3-D tissues. These ingredients and the structure of the scaffold can create cell-cultured meat that has the appearance, mouthfeel and flavor of traditional meat — exhibiting varied fat marbling patterns and muscle textures.
Schulze said this is one of the more challenging aspects of clean meat production.
"The cells don't know they aren't in an animal anymore," he said."We have to train them to realize that. We call it the 'second domestication.' "
Memphis Meats scientists can customize the meat to contain as much vitamins, minerals and protein as the company wants. The company's cell-cultured meat also is sterile and free from bacteria because the animals were never slaughtered, eliminating the risk of E.coli — arguably the largest threat that animal proteins face. Schulze emphasized the presence of bacteria in protein isn't inherently bad, but that without it, cell-cultured meat can stay good for several days longer than traditional meat products.
"The one thing that will make our products go bad is exposure to light, not bacteria," he said.
So far, the company has used its cell-replicating technology to develop chicken, beef and duck meat.
"We chose to create both mammal and avian meat because we wanted to show that we can handle the differences between the two," he said. "The differences between their muscles are incredibly distinct."
Memphis Meats is not the only company working to make products in a lab that normally come from animals. Researchers also are working to produce everything from milk and eggs to products such as leather. The futuristic-items must overcome many of the same obstacles that plague other new products including cost, consumer skepticism, regulatory hurdles and taste.
Lester Wilson, a professor of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University, told the Des Moines Register last year he was doubtful that meats, cheeses, eggs and other products raised in a lab could gain an audience beyond a niche market.
“At the moment, I see too many barriers for them to be readily accepted quickly,” he said. “It’s going to require some (consumer) education, and we know in some cases that doesn’t even work.”
"We chose to create both mammal and avian meat because we wanted to show that we can handle the differences between the two. The differences between their muscles are incredibly distinct."
Senior scientist at Memphis Meats
Schulze said the company is looking to create cell cultured seafood. He also said the creation of bone-in meat is "definitely on the menu, though not on the horizon" for the clean meat producer.
Memphis Meats expects to sell its products in high-end restaurants at a higher-than-average price point by 2019. It hopes to reach cost parity with grocery store meat products — at about $3 to 4 per pound — by 2021. At present, the company can produce one pound of chicken for $3,800.
Schulze is confident the startup's bacteria-free, animal-friendly and environmentally sustainable meat products will meet the demands — and tastes — of today's consumers.
"The world may not be familiar with clean meat, but it's ready for it," he said.
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