‘Test-tube steak’ could be coming to your plate soon

Meat grown in a lab may soon be carnivores’ best option, as Tel Aviv University launches a pioneering feasibility study

Kabobs on the grill. Will Israelis go for cultured meat on their Independence Day barbecues? (Photo credit: Liron Almog/Flash90)
Kabobs on the grill. Will Israelis go for cultured meat on their Independence Day barbecues? (Photo credit: Liron Almog/Flash90)

Cultured meat — also known as in vitro meat — is as real as any meat, says long-time animal rights activist Koby Barak. To encourage its use, his Modern Agricultural Foundation, together with Tel Aviv University, has begun a trailblazing feasibility study concentrating on chicken breast production.

“By the time meat gets to the consumer, it’s been processed far beyond its original form,” Barak told The Times of Israel. “If we’re already processing it to that extent, why not go all the way and develop a cultured meat industry that will produce meat that will be healthier for people, and for the environment?”

The MAF and TAU study will determine, among other things, how cultured meat, which is grown in a lab or factory from animal stem cells, could be manufactured commercially, and will examine the costs, technology, and potential problems that are involved.

Cultured meat is produced by taking stem cells and placing them in a growth culture (an example would be fetal bovine serum, which is extracted from cow uteruses and is rich with energy substrates, amino acids and inorganic salts to support cell metabolism and growth). The cells would divide and grow, creating solid pieces of meat. The science to develop cultured meat – based on tissue engineering – has been around for several years, and research on developing ways to produce it commercially is being conducted around the world.

Such research is being conducted as well at Tel Aviv University, where Professor Amit Gefen, one of the world’s leading experts in tissue engineering, will lead the first feasibility study on cultured meat production that will be available to the general public, scientists, and manufacturers. “There are a couple of companies working on developing cultured meat, but they are privately held, and are not sharing their research with anyone,” said Barak. “We will share the results of this study, enabling manufacturers and investors to determine what they will need in order to commercially produce cultured meat, how much it will cost, what problems will need to be solved to enable commercial production, and so on.”

There are many reasons to prefer cultured meat. For one thing, Barak said, the real thing isn’t really so real, after all. “Animals are shot full of growth hormones and antibiotics, which are not necessarily ingredients we want in our food, but unfortunately, for now, are part of it,” said Barak. “Chickens, for example, live for only about 38 days — the predetermined time period it takes them to reach their maximum size. This unnaturally fast growth rate is achieved by growth catalysts injected into the chickens.”

Further, the factories where meat is produced are rife with bacteria. In 2010 for example, salmonella bacteria were detected in 17% of meat samples checked by Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture, Barak said.

But even if meat could be produced naturally and safely, production is a zero-sum game; with the population increasing and demand for meat growing, the world is reaching the limit of its ability to produce meat.

“By the year 2050, the world’s population is projected to increase to about 9.2 billion, and meat production will be at least double what it is today,” said Barak.

Considering that in Western countries it takes seven to 10 kilograms of grain or cereal to produce one kilogram of meat, according to UN estimates, the world is going to need to grow at least twice as much grain by 2050; ditto for water, also key to the production process. As most of the world’s population growth will be in developing countries, many of which already have enough problems feeding their people, continuing to expand the “meat economy” is crazy, he said.

“And, of course, there is the issue of animal cruelty – like sticking chickens in cages where they can’t move – on factory farms and production facilities, which goes against all our values as Jews, Israelis, and humans,” Barak pointed out.

Cultured meat is the way to go, Barak believes. Although grown in a lab – eventually, when commercial production becomes viable, it will be grown in huge vats – cultured meat is authentic meat, “as natural as anything that comes out of a meat production facility today.”

For those concerned that the production process is not “natural,” Barak points to the many things we accept as substitutes for “natural” living. “The landscapes around us are filled with paved paths and roads, planted vegetation, irrigation, artificial lighting at night and so on. The buildings we live in, whether they are concrete buildings, log cabins or ice igloos, were not created by nature, and often do not resemble anything that exists in it. Without life-saving medicine, temperature regulation, clean drinking water and other dramatic changes, life expectancy would not be what it is today.”

Once people understand cultured meat – something he hopes the feasibility study will help with, too – Barak is convinced they will embrace it.

“Everyone knows that the food we eat today is manufactured, not ‘grown,’ and when you take into account the risk of disease from factory farmed animals – and the more controlled environment we are proposing for cultured meat – I think people will realize the superiority and social impact of cultured meat. The tomato of today is far different than its ‘natural’ ancestor, and the same could be said for many other vegetables and grains. Technology, whether modern like tissue engineering, or ancient like plant hybridization, has always had an impact on the food we eat. Cultured meat is part of that tradition.”

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