Writing in a recent issue of the American Journal of Food Technology, Indian researchers Z.F Bhat and H Bhat said that meat biofabrication would “ensure sustainable production of designer, chemically safe and disease-free meat” in controlled conditions.
Noting that standard meat production was a major polluter and consumer of fossil fuels and water resources, with 30% of the earth’s surface used for livestock, Bhat and Bhat also warned that antibiotics use was contributing to the rise of drug-resistant pathogens, with animal illnesses a growing threat to humans.
With the world population due to hit 9bn by 2050, and global meat production rising from 228m (2000) to 465m tonnes, they said: “It no longer makes sense to contribute stable crops towards inefficient meat production, where 1kg of poultry, pork and beef represents 2, 4 and 7 of grain respectively.”
“With cultured meat, the composition, flavour and functional role of meat could be better controlled, the incidence of foodborne disease significant reduced and resources used more efficiently.”
Enormous technical challenges
The scientists said the basic technique involved culturing muscle tissue in a liquid medium on a large-scale, but that the production of highly structured, unprocessed meat “faces considerably greater technical challenges” with more work necessary to produce culture meat on an industrial scale.
The Dutch government (in partnership with meat firm Stegeman) has led the EU in funding research into in vitro products, and scientists at Eindhoven University announced in November 2009 they had successfully grown muscle tissue
Researchers added live pig cells to a broth of other animal products that multiplied the cells, but said they needed to find a way to artificially 'exercise' the meat, which they compared to wasted muscle tissue.
The extent of UK industry involvement in the technology is unknown, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was not available to comment on any government research into in vitro meat production as we went to press.
However, one source close to the meat industry told FoodManufacture.co.uk that producers were keeping tabs on research, but said that retailer and consumer perceptions of the ethics of such practices were key.
PETA supports meat ‘methadone’
Tissue engineering methods used to date face problems such as a lack of consistency, vascularisation and fat marbling in the final product, said Bhat and Bhat, who added that ‘organ printing’ was one feasible alternative: live cell mixtures are sprayed onto gels in 3D shapes, which later decompose to leave entire organs.
Nanotechnology – altering materials on the atomic and molecular level – was another possibility, said the authors, since everything is made of the same basic atoms arranged differently, with any substance theoretically producible from scratch.
“Interestingly, one of the first examples given of the speculative use of nanotechnology was that of synthesised meat,” the scientists said.
Campaign group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said it supported science examining lab-grown meat as an eco-friendly ‘methadone’ to the ‘heroin’ of meat eating for “people addicted from childhood to flesh”, given enormous animal suffering and environmental damage caused by the meat industry.
A Vegetarian Society spokeswoman said: “If meat grown in labs did happen, and it saved animals from being killed, then some people would obviously buy it.”
“But if it is so like the real article, there’s also a labelling issue. How would you know the product came from the lab? There’s a trust issue that needs to be addressed since food manufacture and labelling is such an issue for vegetarians anyway.”
Since Dutch scientists had used cells from the muscle of a live pig, she added that unanswered questions remain: “How much of the animal would be used to create any product? and how much animal testing would go on? Also, would the process cause environmental pollution?”