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Fake Meat: More Protein Coming From Labs, Plants

Ask a group of cattle producers what they think of the developing competition from a new generation of nonanimal burgers, such as the Impossible Burger. It will certainly get their dander up.

To get them even more excited, ask about a more futuristic development: cultured meat. It’s grown from a sliver of muscle cells (extracted from a real animal) that is coaxed to grow into a slab of meat in an incubator. 

Ranchers like to call it fake meat that probably shouldn’t be allowed in a meat case at a grocery store. Like it or not, new technology is sweeping into the food protein business, and it could very well impact current and future generations of livestock producers.

What is the technology?

The new meat tech is coming in two forms: plant-based and cultured animal cells grown in a lab.

Perhaps the most well-known of the new-generation plant-based burgers is the Impossible Burger from Impossible Foods. According to the company’s website, its burger is made from wheat protein, coconut oil, potato protein, and a mystery ingredient called heme. It claims heme is responsible for the characteristic taste and aroma of meat. 

Beyond Meat makes veggie sausages and burgers using peas and beets as main ingredients. Its site says, “Beets provide the meaty red hue, peas provide the protein, and coconut oil and potato starch ensure mouthwatering juiciness and chew.”

The process for growing meat in a lab is a little fuzzy to laypeople. Because of the race to bring products to market, some of the half-dozen companies working on cultured meat are rather secretive. 

A Dutch start-up called Mosa Meats, founded by university professor Mark Post, does explain its process online. 

“The first step is to take some cells from the muscle of an animal, such as a cow if we’re making beef, which is done with a small biopsy under anesthesia. 

“The cells taken are called myosatellite cells, which are the stem cells of muscles. The function of these stem cells within the animal is to create new muscle tissue when the muscle is injured. It is this inherent talent of the stem cells that is utilized in making cultured meat.

“The cells are placed in a medium containing nutrients and naturally occurring growth factors and are allowed to proliferate just as they would inside an animal. They proliferate until we get trillions of cells from a small sample. This growth takes place in a bioreactor, which looks similar to the bioreactors that beer and yogurt are fermented in.

“When we want the cells to differentiate into muscle cells, we simply stop feeding them growth factors, and they differentiate on their own. The muscle cells naturally merge to form myotubes (a primitive muscle fiber that is no more than 0.3 mm long).

“The myotubes are then placed in a gel that is 99% water, which helps the cells form the shape of muscle fibers. The muscle cells’ innate tendency to contract causes them to start putting on bulk, growing into a small strand of muscle tissue.

“From one cow sample, we can produce 800 million strands of muscle tissue (enough to make 80,000 quarter pounders).

“When all these strands are layered together, we get what we started with – meat. It can then be processed using standard food technologies; for example, putting it through a meat grinder to make ground beef.”

Since the cells are doing what they normally would inside an animal, the company says the cells are not genetically modified in any way.

who makes fake meat?

Several companies are working to take more of the meat market from traditional meat producers. Here are five.

1. Beyond Meat. This privately held Los Angeles company is building meat directly from plants. Its new product is the Beyond Burger, currently available at more than 1,300 grocery stores, including Kroger and Hy-Vee. 

The ¼-pound patty with 20 grams of protein has no soy, no gluten, no GMOs, no cholesterol, and half the saturated fat of an 80% lean beef burger, says a company spokesperson.

2. Impossible Foods. Its signature product is the Impossible Burger. The company’s website says its scientists, farmers, and chefs spent the last five years studying burgers from cow to bun. “Then, we identified methods and ingredients to naturally re-create everything – the sights, sounds, aromas, textures, and flavors.”

Its burger is in 1,000 restaurants across the U.S., including White Castle, where it sells an Impossible Burger slider for $1.99. 

3. Memphis Meats. This San Francisco start-up is culturing real meat from animal muscle cells. “We’re going to bring meat to the plate in a more sustainable, affordable, and delicious way,” explains Uma Valeti, cofounder and CEO of Memphis Meats. “Meat demand is growing rapidly around the world. We want the world to keep eating what it loves.”

 4. Mosa Meat. This project is the brainchild of Mark Post, a professor at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. He says it will be indistinguishable from the meat of a real animal. 

“We expect the price to be in the $10-per-hamburger range once the production is at scale, using the current technology. Eventually it may even become cheaper (than conventional meat) as less resources are required to culture beef than to produce it through livestock,” he says.

He hopes to be in restaurants and specialty stores in Europe by 2021. U.S. supermarkets will follow in another two to three years.

5. Future Meat Technologies. This start-up is focused on producing cultured meat in a cost-efficient way, according to Yaakov Nahmias, the company’s founder and chief scientist. 

“It is difficult to imagine cultured meat becoming a reality with a current production price of about $10,000 per kilogram,” he said in a statement to AgFunderNews. “We redesigned the manufacturing process until we brought it down to $800 per kg today, with a clear road map to $5 to $10 per kg ($2.25 to $4.50 per pound) by 2020.”

It also claims to be the first to produce animal fat in a lab without harvesting animals and without any genetic modification.

Who’s investing?

Along with billionaires Bill Gates and Richard Branson, meat industry heavyweights Cargill and Tyson Foods are also sinking money into the new vegetable and cultured meat companies.

Tyson CEO Tom Hayes posted a letter to customers on the company’s website titled, “Why We Are Investing in Alternative Proteins.” Here’s what Hayes says: 

“We know what comes to mind when people think of Tyson Foods – and that’s chicken. In truth, we’re about chicken and so much more. We’re about sausage and pepperoni. Scrambled eggs and convenience snacks. Deli turkey and beef jerky. And now, through our venture capital fund, cultured meats and plant-based proteins.

“All of those foods have one common link: protein.

“Today’s consumers want more protein. Sixty percent of us are actively trying to add more protein to our diets, and when we think about the attributes we want in our food, protein tops the list – outranking all-natural ingredients and vitamins and minerals.

“At the same time, our global population continues to grow. There will be a billion more people in the world by 2030, and each person is expected to eat more calories. Those factors combined mean the world will need to supply at least 20% more calories in 2030 than it does today.

“The question facing all of us: How will we feed this growing number of people the protein they want, in ways that are sustainable?

“We believe it will take a combination of innovative and traditional approaches. 

“That’s why Tyson Foods is investing in alternative proteins through Beyond Meat and Memphis Meats.

“If you think about it, a protein strategy inclusive of alternative forms is intuitive for Tyson Foods. It’s another step toward giving today’s consumers what they want and feeding tomorrow’s consumers sustainably for years to come.”

Why change meat?

The people who make plant-based veggie burgers tend to give a very antianimal agriculture answer to that question. For instance, Beyond Meat says, “Our belief is that the best way to get people to eat less meat is by giving them more of what they love – in our case, juicy, delicious burgers, sausages, and more – without so many of the health, sustainability, and animal welfare downsides of animal-based meats.”

Cultured meat developers and proponents aren’t against animal ag; they think we can’t grow enough meat the natural way to satisfy coming world demand. 

Says Mosa Meat, “By 2050, global meat demand will be 70% higher than today’s level. Our planet simply doesn’t have enough land and water to produce this much meat using animals. Trying to do so would devastate the environment. That’s why we’re so committed to creating a sustainable way to make real meat.”

Trevor Amen, formerly an animal protein economist for CoBank, says you can look at it this way: It’s part of the continuing quest for technological advancements in food manufacturing. He predicts alternative protein products derived from plant sources, insects, and cultured meats will be one of the top food trends to watch in coming years. 

But, he adds, the effect on livestock and poultry protein demand in the U.S. is not expected to be significant.

“The future success of alternative proteins lies squarely with rising global protein demand, rather than a battle for the existing market share of livestock and poultry protein,” he says.

what are producers saying?

Producer groups, like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and the National Pork Board (NPB), are watching closely. 

NCBA has made the fake meat issue a policy priority this year. The group has asked government officials to enforce existing laws when it comes to labeling plant-based protein products, contending they are not meat and could confuse consumers. 

“NCBA firmly believes the term beef should only be applicable to products derived from actual livestock raised by farmers and ranchers,” say NCBA officials in official comments to USDA. “For misbranded and mislabeled plant-based protein products, existing legislation gives FDA the authority to take enforcement actions. 

“NCBA requests that USDA  engage with FDA to facilitate immediate, appropriate enforcement actions against imitation meat product labels that clearly violate existing laws.”

NCBA also has encouraged the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service to take control of regulating cultured meat, rather than letting the FDA have that authority. “Unlike the FDA, USDA-FSIS requires pre-approval of all labels before products hit the marketplace. This will ensure consistent labeling practices across all products and prevent misleading marketing labels such as clean meat,” it said.

The NPB has not made an official statement on alternative proteins, but it is paying close attention, says Dave Pyburn, the NPB vice president of science and technology. “We’re treating these new products like any other competitor in the protein space,” he says. “We think we can do better than them at serving consumers.”

NPB has commissioned research on the plant-based pork competitors. “We’re getting a complete analysis of the nutrient profile of the products so we can fairly compare them to pork,” Pyburn says.

It would be doing similar research on cultured meats if it could only get its hands on some of the product. So far, it can’t. “Ask me again in a few months, and I think we’ll have product and have begun comparison research with them, too,” he says. 

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