Israeli startup Aleph Farms Ltd. made global headlines last week when it said it has created the first “test tube” steak, which looks like steak and feels like steak but was produced without killing animals. The taste is almost there, said CEO and co-founder Didier Toubia, and under certain conditions the meat could also be kosher.
“We’re shaping the future of the meat industry,” Toubia said in a phone interview on Sunday. “Last week we released a proof of concept showing that we can develop the full tissue of the meat. We demonstrated our ability to achieve that goal. We believe ours is the first real whole piece of meat grown outside of animals.”
The firm will need at least two more years of development before it has a commercial product available, he said.
The smell of the meat is very good but the taste requires more work, he said, to make it 100% the same as that of real meat. “We are not far,” he added.
Growing cows for meat has been found to have one of the largest negative impacts on the global environment, and reducing meat consumption is necessary to cut gas emissions and avoid climate change, a study in the journal Nature showed. Some 56 billion animals — cows, lamb and poultry — are slaughtered every year to feed the world, where consumption of meat is set to grow 70% by 2050, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations as middle classes in Asia and Africa join the trend.
“This is not sustainable in the long term and we must find a way to solve this proteins crisis,” said Toubia by phone.
One approach is to create a plant-based diet — and there is a growing trend globally to grow proteins from plants — “but the consumption of this is not growing as fast as that of meat,” he explained. “So instead of replacing meat, we are saying let’s produce meat, but in a sustainable and clean way, without antibiotics and without slaughtering animals in the process.”
This second approach is done by developing cell-grown meat, which means growing meat from a few cells of a living animal, extracted painlessly. These cells are nourished and grow to produce a complex matrix that replicates muscle tissue. In comparison to conventionally produced European meat, cultured meat uses some 7-45 percent lower energy, 78-96% lower emissions, 99% lower land use, and 82-96% lower water use, a 2011 study showed.
One of the barriers to this kind of meat production has been getting the various cell types to interact with each other to build a complete tissue structure, as they would in the natural environment inside the animal. The challenge is to find the right nutrients and their combination that would allow the multicellular matrix to grow together efficiently, creating a complete structure. Aleph Farms said it overcame this obstacle thanks to a bio-engineering platform developed in collaboration with the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa.
“Making a patty or a sausage from cells cultured outside the animal is challenging enough; imagine how difficult it is to create a whole-muscle steak,” Toubia said in a statement released by the firm last week. “At Aleph Farms, this is not science fiction. We’ve transformed the vision into reality by growing a steak under controlled conditions. The initial products are still relatively thin, but the technology we developed marks a true breakthrough and a great leap forward in producing a cell-grown steak.”
To produce its meat, Aleph leverages the ability of animals to grow tissue muscle constantly. “We isolate the cells responsible for growing muscle tissue and reproduce the optimal conditions for these cells to grow into tissue. So, basically, we grow meat outside the animal.”
The tissue is grown in tanks that act as fermenters, similar to in a brewery. There the cells are nurtured, and shaped into a 3D structure that makes the meat.
The product has so far been produced only in labs. At commercial stage the cells will be grown in what Toubia says will be bio-farms.
The firm is now working on the final commercial design of the tanks and on the final formulation of the suspension in which the cells are cultured — the perfect balance of nutrients, vitamins and minerals to create the meat.
Because beef is the main issue for the environment, Aleph is currently focused on beef, but will eventually move to creating meat from other mammals, like pork and lamb, he said, and later poultry and fish.
The steak has the same nutritional value as regular beef, he said, including iron and vitamins, but in the lab the product can be manipulated to be even healthier — minimizing the impact of the less-good ingredients that are found in the meat, like cholesterol or saturated fat, Toubia said.
“Aleph Farms’ minute steak is thinly sliced and will cook in just a minute or so,” said Amir Ilan, chef at the Paris Texas restaurant in Ramat Gan, in the statement. “For me, it is a great experience to eat meat that has the look and feel of beef but has been grown without antibiotics and causes no harm to animals or the environment. Aleph Farms meat has high culinary potential — it can be readily incorporated into top-shelf preparations or served in premium-casual restaurants, trendy cafes, bistros, or other eateries.”
Meaty or pareve?
Regarding religious dietary requirements, Toubia said there is disagreement as to whether the product is considered meat — and thus a religiously observant person would have to abide by the Jewish dietary requirement of not eating it with milk products — or whether it is pareve, i.e., neither meat or milk.
“That is the most significant question” for the considerations of the kosher consumer, Toubia said. “I believe that technically it is a meat product, because it is made from cells and we reproduce the same taste and texture. Some rabbis think it should be pareve, but we don’t necessarily agree.”
In 2013, Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Orthodox Union’s kosher division, said that meat from a lab-grown hamburger could be consumed with dairy products.
Obviously, to be kosher, the cells need to come from an animal that is considered kosher – so no pig meat would be allowed yet, Toubia said. Other considerations that need to be taken into account when considering kosher consumption is where the cells are taken from. If they come from a slaughtered animal, then the slaughtering process should have been a kosher process. Also relevant is how the cells are cultured; all the added ingredients must be kosher.
“We don’t disclose how we get our cells, but we are not taking cells from dead animals,” Toubia said.
The process at the moment does not require genetic manipulation of the cells, he said; “we hope the product will be fully natural.” But the product will require approval from the US Food and Drug Administration and the US Department of Agriculture, and the company is working closely with the bodies to shape the regulatory path ahead.
The Ashdod, Israel-based startup was founded in 2017 by Toubia with Israeli food-tech incubator The Kitchen, a part of the Strauss Group Ltd., and the Technion Israel Institute of Technology. The technology was developed in the tissue engineering lab of Professor Shulamit Levenberg at the Technion.
The firm has raised some 2.4 million in seed money to date, according to the database of Start-Up Nation Central, which tracks the industry.
The company is supported by US and European venture capital firms. Aleph Farms joined The RisingFoodStars — the European Institute of Technology Food’s club of outstanding agri-food startups in July 2018.
Other global firms are also producing cell-grown meat, but Aleph researchers are the “only ones in the world who have been able to create a whole muscle tissue” and not just an aggregation of cells, without the tissue, that other companies are producing for items like burgers or nuggets, Toubia said.
In 2013 Dutch firm Mosa Meat unveiled the world’s first hamburger made by making new muscle tissue using stem cells from animals, while another Dutch firm, Meatable, is also using cells to create what it says is “100% real, delicious guilt-free meat.” US firm Just, a vegan food business, is developing slaughter-free chicken nuggets made from cells taken from a live chicken and developed in a lab. Israel’s SuperMeat, set up in 2015, is working with the pharmaceutical industry to create chicken products without killing chickens.
The price tag for the small slice of steak developed by Aleph is $50, more expensive than the regular price of meat, but still cheaper than the €250,000 (some $282,000) burger made by Mosa Meat, in 2013.
“At the end of the day we believe the price of our meat will be the same price and even cheaper” than regular meat, Toubia said, but it will be more expensive until economies of scale are reached, acknowledged.