Vetagro Journal Club, #2

Cell-based meat, friend or foe?

Who would have ever thought to eat meat derived from in vitro cell cultures?

Cell cultures have historically been used to recreate epithelia and tissues similar to their in vivo counterpart and suitable for many investigative and therapeutic purposes. As an example, cell cultures are used to study many biological systems in a simplified way, they are used to study possible pharmacological approaches toward a variety of pathologies or, in some cases, they are used to re-create portions of tissues or organs for self-transplant.

And that was the case until more recently, in 2014, the first cultured meat deriving from beef stem cells hit the headlines. Cell-based meat might be commercially available in a very short time and is projected to capture a significant share of the meat marketplace by 2040, provided that some concerns and feasibility obstacles will be overcome.

It is no secret that the fast growing demand for meat production, called by a fast increasing population, will cause some procurement issues, as well as some ethical concerns derived from the increasing awareness of animals as sentient beings with specific physical and welfare needs. Moreover, there are many environmental implications that intensive farming needs to take care of, especially in view of increasing production.

Having said this, we shouldn’t think of cell-cultured meat as the final and only response. While at a first glance we may look at this as a “clean” method to produce meat, we shouldn’t be forgetting that cells require a significant amount of chemicals to be able to grow in vitro, and, more importantly, they need antibiotics, anti-fungal agents and other undesirable substances. In fact, while “conventional” meat production is rapidly shifting toward an “antibiotic free” type of production, at least in some parts of the world, we have to think that the efficiency of cell-based meat hasn’t been optimized yet and there is a chance that molecules such as antibiotics and other chemicals will always have to be included in the recipe to grow meat in vitro. On another aspect, the nutritional value, not to mention the organoleptic one, of cell-based meat hasn’t been assessed yet. As an example, while it seems relatively easy to reproduce part of the muscle fibers in vitro, it might be more complicated to include adipose cells that typically confer flavor and marbling, as well as myoglobin that confers color. Even texture still remains a big question mark. Whether or not cell-based meat will provide some essential vitamins and minerals to the same extent as conventional meat is still to be determined.

When it comes to the environmental impact of cell-based meat, a thorough assessment still needs to be performed, since scale-up conditions haven’t been perfected yet. But, as a general reference, some speculate that it might not be that different from conventional husbandry.

What is more relevant to animate the discussion though, is the consumers’ perception and societal challenge of the debate between conventional versus cell-based meat. It seems there are significant differences of perception between the hemispheres of the world: the southern part seems to place a greater value on the connection between food and its source, and is less likely to accept in vitro meat. In contrast, one third of the US population appears to be keener to a possible replacement of conventional meat. The most frequent arguments against in vitro meat spin around the idea of “unnaturalness”, whilst those in favor are for ethical/environmental reasons. Interestingly enough, the more cell-based meat is presented and pushed from the technological perspective, the less likely is the chance to be accepted, irrespective of geographical origin or religious  belonging.

Now comes the big question: what is waiting ahead of us? How will cell-based meat shape consumers’ demand, the marketplace, and thus conventional production?

Where are we standing as an industry?

On a positive note, we shouldn’t been thinking that cell-based meat will completely replace the need for meat-producing animals, as the increased total demand will probably exceed conventional meat production capabilities. The co-existence of the two worlds (old and new) seems in fact to be the most likely scenario. Nevertheless, as an industry, we are solicited to commit to researching new avenues to production and to keep on improving the efficiency and sustainability of our industry. We have to take into account all of the possible means that are in our hands in order to spare and efficiently use the resources we have available.

Enjoy the reading!

Cell-based meat: the need to assess holistically, by Faustman et al., 2020: Click here