Worldwide, each of us eats around 40 kilos of meat per year – in Germany, it’s a whopping 78 kilos. However, our meat consumption and the associated factory farming have been proven to impact our health and the environment. That’s why Jette Feveile Young is conducting research at Aarhus University in Denmark into a more resource-friendly alternative to meat as we know it: steak from a Petri dish. Cultured meat – also known as in-vitro or lab-grown meat – is not to be confused with meat made from plant proteins. However, it can be manufactured with less animal derived components so it can be said to be ‘clean meat’.
MPULSE: For many people, meat from a laboratory sounds very disconcerting – like a vision from the future in a sci-fi film. What’s the real story behind cultured meat?
Jette Feveile Young: Cultured meat is made by growing muscle tissue from animal stem cells. We try to artificially reproduce the natural processes involved in the formation of meat. But it really isn’t easy because meat is much more than just tissue: it’s all about the flavour. And that is produced particularly by the fats in the meat. Other important factors in production of the taste components are the correct temperature, oxygen tension and nutrients once the tissue has finished growing. That’s why we are researching procedures to stimulate precisely the right processes in the cells so that meat grows from them and the right flavour develops. In other words, how we can imitate in the laboratory the processes that are normally triggered by slaughtering, cooling and maturing the meat. Our aim is to achieve the same mouthfeel, juiciness and flavour as in normal meat. Because at the end of the day, it is the people who decide whether they want to eat it.
So what’s the key to encouraging consumers to accept meat alternatives on their menus?
Besides environmental and animal welfare aspects, I think flavour plays a significant role. If consumers don’t think it tastes good, they won’t eat it again. For those who don’t like the taste of meat, plant-based meat alternatives that intentionally differ in flavour from the real thing are a good idea. However, I think that passionate meat-eaters would be prepared to switch to cultured alternatives when these are ready for market – because they fulfil their flavour requirements but are better for the environment. This is already the case for some ‘meat-flavoured’ plant products. So right now, it is definitely easier to develop products that are as similar as possible to normal meat in order to win over meat-lovers. However, in the long term, it is also possible that entirely new types of products will be created. Why must a meatball be plant-based or from the laboratory – couldn’t it also be something completely different?
About ... Jette Feveilen Young
Jette Feveile Young is an associate professor at the Institute of Food Science and head of the science team Differentiated & Biofunctional Foods at the University of Aarhus in Denmark. Her areas of expertise include particularly meat, meat alternatives and cell biology. She is a co-organiser of and a speaker at the Cultured Meat Conference, which focuses not only on the future of the traditional meat industry, but also on alternative proteins and artificially raised meat. She also co-wrote ‘The Future Protein Manifesto’ with the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT).
You mean meat alternatives are the future of the traditional Sunday roast?
It’s not about either one way or the other, as is often suggested. I don’t think that we need to completely end our normal meat consumption to live in a way that preserves our resources. It is much more about creating more alternatives and establishing more sustainable methods for producing meat. After all, the worldwide demand for meat isn’t going anywhere! Meat will always remain part of our culture, particularly in western industrialised nations. From a nutritional perspective, meat also has a unique nutrient composition that cannot be found in other foods and is difficult to imitate. However, a very small amount is enough to meet our needs. Changing people’s mindset to the effect that we can be satisfied with less meat or that we can engage with meat alternatives and actually enjoy them will take a couple of generations.
With regard to mindset, the hospitality industry is divided into 2 camps: either they cook entirely without meat or they hold the view that ‘there is no flavour without meat’. Can meat alternatives – whether from peas, mushrooms or the laboratory – build a bridge here?
I am firmly convinced that the options arising from alternatives to conventional meat will be adopted by the hospitality industry very quickly – perhaps even by both camps. The sector is always hungry for new ideas! Chefs with the ability to prepare a product appropriately – especially with regard to texture and flavour – will quickly integrate it into their menu and generate enthusiasm for it among their guests. At the same time, alternative meat products support restaurateurs in making their businesses more sustainable. With cultured meat, for example, only what is needed is produced – no animal parts are left over unused.
Is a burger from a Petri dish really so much more environmentally friendly than a traditionally produced burger?
Compared to traditional meat production, life cycle analyses have shown that cultured meat requires significantly less arable land and water because it is manufactured in a laboratory. It also avoids the high CO2 emissions caused by animals producing gas. Furthermore, in the laboratory we can choose where we get the energy we need to ‘grow’ the meat. I am also convinced that we can incorporate new production processes into existing structures and thus generate strong synergies. For example, we could obtain the animal cells for laboratory growth from animals that are intended for slaughter in conventional meat production – and thus get a cow-and-a-half’s worth of meat from a single cow. This would mean we would have enough meat to fulfil the needs of the population, but from fewer animals.
So the development of cultured meat is not in competition with traditional meat production and plant-based products?
In my opinion, the different systems should go hand in hand and complement one another. Some products and research branches will definitely cross over. When we cultivate animal cells, we need a surface on which they can grow – this can be of animal origin or have a plant basis. For example, we could try to attach animal cells onto soya, mushroom or potato proteins. This would make the resulting product part plant, part animal – a hybrid – which gives us great potential to manufacture many different types of products with different flavours and textures. Ultimately, it’s about ensuring balanced and sustainable nutrition – and for that, we need a good and resource-saving balance of food sources.
To ensure that more people use meat alternatives, they must also be affordable, of course. In 2013, the first burger produced in a laboratory cost around €250,000. Will lab-grown meat be suitable for mass production in the near future?
The most expensive aspects of cultured meat are the cell culture medium and the specific growth serum that allows the muscles to grow. In this area, there has already been tremendous progress in research, causing prices to drop significantly in recent years. In my opinion, it’s all about the research – and for that, we need comprehensive financial support. So far, there has been little state funding, so I think it’s important to make lab-grown meat familiar to the public and to make information about it generally accessible. That would enable us to accelerate the development process substantially and ultimately make cultured meat available to a broader market.
From massive prices to mass production
The first cultured burger came from the Netherlands: a research team from the University of Maastricht ‘grew’ the first beef in a laboratory in 2013. That burger cost around €250,000, but since then, prices have come down to an estimated €9 to €11 per patty. In 2021, an exclusive restaurant in Singapore started selling the first in-vitro product – chicken nuggets. However, these consist of only 75% grown cells – the rest is plant-based. In the next 2 years, some start-ups are planning to enter the market with cultured meat products, although the necessary permits are still pending. So it may well be a while before cultured products are served on our plates at home.