Feed Bites

Cell-Cultured Meat: Is It Really Right-Around-the-Corner?

Written by: Guest   |   August 3, 2020

Guest perspective, Economics, Federal agencies

Dr. Jason M. Scheffler, assistant professor, Department of Animal Sciences, University of Florida
Dr. Tracy L. Scheffler, assistant professor, Department of Animal Sciences, University of Florida

Cell-cultured muscle is not a new phenomenon. In 1885, Wilhelm Roux was able to culture cells from the neural plate of a chicken embryo for a few days. Those early experiments eventually expanded to a variety of cell types, including muscle.

Today, cell culture techniques are utilized in myriad ways, including studying basic cellular physiology, how diseases develop and what treatments may be successful, toxicity of specific chemicals, immune response, stress tolerance and the emerging field of regenerative medicine, where tissues can be grown and transplanted into patients. However, cultivation of specific cell types intended for human consumption is a relatively new development and is part of what would be considered, “cellular agriculture.”

While not currently on the market, you do not have to go far in the popular press to find articles proclaiming that cell-cultured meat is right around the corner -- nearing commercial availability. The first lab-grown burger was unveiled in 2013 by Dutch food scientist Mark Post with an estimated production cost of $330,000 for a single, five-ounce patty. Since then, technical advancements have helped the price come down dramatically.

Despite what these articles say, there are still many barriers in the way of commercializing cell-cultured meat. Since this is a topic of interest to the American Feed Industry Association’s members, we were asked to provide our take on the current constraints facing this market, but first, let’s start with the basics.

What does it take to make lab-grown muscle?

  • Cells: Embryonic stem cells or satellite cells can be derived from a living animal. These cells tend to have a finite ability to grow in culture, requiring new cells. To reduce the need for a living animal, cell lines that can be perpetually cultured have been developed, largely through the use of genetic engineering.
  • Scaffolding: Muscle is a highly organized tissue that must be aligned to coordinate force production, resulting in movement. Muscle cells are normally arranged with the help of a connective tissue matrix that maintains the three-dimensional structure. Cell culture is primarily two-dimensional due to the limited diffusion of nutrients and gases, such as oxygen through the tissue. Muscle cells also need to adhere to a surface, rather than float in the media, making surface area a limiting constraint. Solutions, such as microcarriers, are being developed to maximize surface area while making harvest easier.
  • Nutrients: A living animal consumes raw feedstuffs and metabolizes them into amino acids, fatty acids and glucose needed for cellular growth. A cell culture system requires all those components to be provided at the appropriate concentration, purity and sterility.
  • Hormones and growth factors: Cell growth requires many paracrine and endocrine signals. In culture, these signals need to be provided in biologically relevant concentrations.
  • Gas exchange: Muscle cells require oxygen and produce carbon dioxide as waste. Oxygen needs to be regulated within a range that prevents both hypoxia and oxidative damage.
  • Waste removal: In addition to carbon dioxide, cells produce other waste products, such as lactate, urea and creatinine. Accumulation of these products can be toxic to the cells.
  • Infection prevention: The living animal can combat infectious agents with an immune system. In culture, these agents must be excluded from the system, especially since antibiotics may not be used.
  • Temperature: Cells have optimal function within a narrow temperature range close to body temperature. The living animal has mechanisms to generate or dissipate heat to maintain that temperature range. Temperature of the cell culture system is relatively easy to control, but it requires energy input and the associated cost.
  • “Black box”: This refers to the unknown factors that are needed for muscle growth. Findings from years of research have progressively whittled down this unknown. However, we cannot claim to have an all-encompassing knowledge of how muscle grows.

In the living animal, there are systems that serve many of these functions. For instance, the circulatory system serves to deliver nutrients, hormones, growth factors, etc., while also removing waste. Those functions need to be recapitulated in culture, which requires a deep understanding of the biology, technical skills and precision equipment.

Researchers have addressed many of the technical hurdles for making cell-cultured meat possible. For example, fetal bovine serum was routinely used to address the “black box” problem: serum is rich with nutrients, growth factors and other previously unknown components that facilitate culture growth. As we have refined the specific requirements for muscle cell growth, serum-free media has been developed, which has reduced, if not eliminated, the need for fetal bovine serum. Unfortunately, serum-free media can cost significantly more than comparable serum-containing media.

Will lab grown muscle tissue “become” meat?  

The biochemical, physical and textural properties of muscle change after the animal is harvested. This “conversion of muscle to meat” affects appearance and palatability attributes, like tenderness and flavor. Meat is also not just muscle; in muscle, connective tissue forms a scaffold for cells, and in meat, connective tissue influences textural characteristics. Further, fat or “marbling” in muscle affects flavor, juiciness and mouthfeel. These taste and textural characteristics could be imparted during processing by incorporation of functional ingredients, though there may be an opportunity for co-culture with fat or other cell types. How processors work to achieve the desirable taste and texture attributes for their product will also affect the nutritional characteristics and cost of production.

So when will cell-cultured meat be available on the market?

This is a very difficult question to answer as there are still major regulatory, technical and financial hurdles that have, thus far, kept cell-based meat off the market. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration have agreed on a joint framework for inspection and regulation of cell-cultured meat. However, cell-cultured meat companies still need to work with regulators on the structure of inspection, including the identification and mitigation of potential health risks and characterization the nutritional composition. There are also technical challenges of scaling from smaller benchtop systems to industrial production while making a product that meets consumer expectations. There are still technical challenges that need to be resolved and potential solutions require financial investment.

The financial question is really the hardest to predict. Consumers are faced with a wide variety of food options.

The protein market is currently split between animal and plant sources, and at some point, cell-cultured protein will also be competing for a share of that market. Even if cell cultured meat satisfies consumers’ taste and texture expectations, it still must be affordable.

Consumers may pay more for what they perceive to be a premium product, to an extent. However, price is still the number one driver of consumer choice. Marketing will be necessary to justify that the additional cost is consistent with consumers’ expectations and values (e.g., nutrition, health, environment, welfare, etc). The relative proportion of that market each segment occupies will be driven by the ability to convince the consumer where to spend their hard-earned dollar.


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