The world is awakening to the environmental cost of eating meat, and with that comes the rush to look for sustainable, cheap alternatives. Whilst many have eliminated animal products altogether with the rise of veganism, and others adopt plant-based meat alternatives, 2021 will witness the proliferation of cell-based meat. Cultured or cell-based meats are meat cells engineered in vitro in laboratory conditions, and never see a ‘live host’. Cell-basedmeat.org notes that besides animal welfare and environmental degradation, cell-based meat could also mitigate global poverty and avoid the use of antibiotics which has given rise to fear around antibiotic-resistant bacteria in recent years.
The first example of a cultured beef patty was created by Dr. Mark Post at Maastricht University in 2013, and between 2011 and 2017 roughly 60 start-ups were launched with the view to entering the market with an economically feasible product. This difficulty arises from the biological complexity of the process. First, undifferentiated ‘pluripotent’ lines’ (which can mature into all different cell types) stem cells or ‘cell must be derived from ‘totipotent’ stem cells, which can mature into most cells within the body. Cell lines are immersed in a medium and must then be ‘scaffolded’ through interaction in vivo with the collection of glycoproteins, collagen, and enzymes that comprise the Extracellular Matrix (ECM).
With this in mind, it’s perhaps unsurprising that there are no marketable products to date. Of the forerunners, Memphis Meats had hoped to enter in 2020, Motif FoodWorks is gunning for a 2021 Q4 beef flavouring release, and the innovative Singapore-based Shiok Meats claimed in March 2020 to be set to enter the market in 2021. Unlike their competitors, Shiok Meats is looking to corner the seafood share of this innovative industry. With a long and impressive list of investors including Monde Nissin (owners of Quorn), the female-owned firm has raised over US $20 million to date, and claims to be on schedule to become the first company in the world to have a fully functioning commercial pilot plant for cell-based crustacean production. Shiok Meats’ stated mission of “contributing towards a cleaner and healthier seafood industry” and “solving for the inefficiencies around global protein production” supports Singapore Food Agency’s aim of producing 30% of Singapore’s food requirements by 2030. Shiok Meats is therefore at the forefront of Singapore’s bid for food security: investors in sustainable agriculture, look no further.
Cell-based meat should be halal because it does not require the spilling of the blood of an animal, or the intermingling of flesh and blood. However, Muslims faced with cell-based meat may encounter an unprecedented moral question, as The Islamic form of slaughtering animals or poultry, dhabiha, involves killing through a cut to the jugular vein, carotid artery and windpipe. Wherein does cell-based meat lie, which is not involved with the death of an animal? Most Muslims will doubtless conclude that this represents a moral novelty and will therefore act accordingly. Moreover, consumers seem set to adopt cell-based meat as an environmental alternative. In a recent survey from animal advocates Faunalytics, 2 out of 3 people said they would try cell-based meat and more than half of them said they would replace conventional meat with “clean” meat. However, this still leaves the question of whether regulators will get on board with the marketing methods that cell-based meat companies desire. There has already been a skirmish over the semantic field: whilst cell-based is most common, other less neutral terms such as slaughter-free or clean meat have also been thrown around. Although it is currently unclear how major regulators will react, one indication that it will not be an easy ride came from Missouri, it is now illegal to use the word “meat” to advertise anything that does not contain flesh from a slaughtered animal.
Will so-called ‘pseudo-meats’, animal proteins never reliant upon animals, really become a major foodstuff of the future? For Shiok and others, it’s only a matter of time. When Dr. Post unveiled the first cell-based hamburger in London in 2013, it was a hugely expensive and laborious process, costing roughly $330,000, yet Dr. Post’s company Mosa Meats had planned to sell cell-based burgers for $10 a patty by 2020. Whilst we didn’t see this come into fruition last year, it may be only months before commercial customers tuck into test-tube meat.