The Race to Make Fake Meat – Saving Animals and the Planet (and Disrupting the Meat Industry)

fake meat in test tubes (Liz McBurney for the Guardian)
Photo Credit: Liz McBurney, The Guardian

The hottest buzz-phrase in neo-economic theory is “disruptive innovation,” and innovation-driven companies are actively trying to identify it, foster it (or control it), and seeking ways to adapt to it and exploit it.

If one is looking for a prime example of an emerging disruptive innovation, one has no better example than the heated race to create fake meat — that is, the first laboratory-crafted hamburger meat.

The breakthrough achievements at the heart of this feat of animal protein fakery — as well as their timely up-scaling — could help save the planet (from farm animal GHG emissions*), spare many millions of animals from cruel slaughtering practices, help feed the world’s growing population, and disrupt the global meat industry in the process.

Indeed, both of the scientists competing in this “race” (though, actually, they are working at the solution from two opposite ends) have referred to the animal meat industry as a “sitting duck for disruptive technology.”

“We will change how the Earth looks from space!” — Patrick Brown, microbiologist, quoting the motto of his fake meat start-up company Sand Hill Foods.

But wait, don’t we already have fake meat? Yes, but this is usually ‘textured vegetable protein’ (TVP) or textured soy protein (TSP) that is reconstituted (and usually mixed with several additives and spices) and tastes like something other than real meat (and can wreak havoc on your digestive system). It’s also fairly pricey compared to the same weight of animal protein.

No, this race is about making meat from either lab-cultured animal muscle cells, or, from manipulated vegetable matter to produce a high-quality meat imitation, and which is mostly indistinguishable from the real thing.

* Meat production accounts for about 5% of global CO2 emissions, 40% of methane emissions and 40% of various nitrogen oxides. If meat production doubles, by the late 2040s cows, pigs, sheep and chickens will be responsible for about half as much climate change impact as all the world’s cars, trucks and aircraft. [Source: The Guardian]

Meet the Competitors

This emergent, fake meat ‘race’ is between two scientist (with their own start-up commercial plans) on opposite sides of the planet.

One is Dr. Mark Post at the University of Maastrich (Holland), and the other is Prof. Patrick Brown of Standford University. Both scientists gave symposium talks, along with chemist Keshun Liu at the USDA Agricultural Research Service, at the annual Science Meeting in Vancouver, B.C.,this past February (note: this writer attended the conference and the fake meat symposium).

For the past two years, Professor Brown has been working on creating synthesized meat and dairy products. Says Brown:

“I have zero interest in making a new food just for vegans. I am making a food for people who are comfortable eating meat and who want to continue eating meat. I want to reduce the human footprint on this planet by 50%.” (Source: The Guardian)

Dr. Post, a meat-lover and amateur chef, is working on lab-grown animal cells.

“This is a disruptive technology. I think the meat industry will be an adversary, and maybe a dangerous one,” says Post (Source: The Guardian)

In referencing the animal meat industry, both scientists have described it as a “sitting duck for disruptive technology.”

Veggie burgers garnished with onion, ketchup, and cheddar cheese (Photo Credit: SuziJane)

So, why has it taken until now for this ‘disruptive’ technology to emerge?

Well, real meat is a complex substance, containing many kinds of tissue cells, blood vessels, fat, organic molecules, and gristle.

Raw animal flesh (i.e., myoglobin, or muscle protein) is fairly tasteless (but has a distinct texture); what gives animal meat its flavor is a combination, a synthesis, of many chemical compounds (like amino acids, sugars and fats) all of which undergo chemical transformations as they are oxidized (i.e., cooked).

On top of this, two key attributes and components of the fake meat-making process — texturization and fiberization — require opposite or complimentary conditions to produce them (the former needing low moisture but high temperature, the latter needing high moisture but low temperature).

These are crucial factors whether one is cultivating meat from actual animal cells, or manipulating plant cells to imitate animal meat.

Developing the techniques and the technology to successfully imitate and replicate the complex structure that is animal meat has taken much time, money, and experimentation. There have been many failures over the years.

In vitro Meat

The current technique of generating in vitro animal meat requires actually killing the animal whose cells are to be cultured. The theory is that one slaughtered animal’s cells will result in hundreds of tons of meat, reducing the total number slaughtered animals dramatically. And, the animal is a free-range, antibiotic-, and cruelty-free animal. Further, this requirement will eventually be eliminated as non-lethal means of extracting sufficient animal muscle stem cells are perfected.

The cells needed are actually skeletal muscle ‘satellite’ cells, which are the very same type of cells recruited to the site of muscle tearing or stress (after rigorous exercise, etc.). The stem cells rapidly divide and multiple to created new muscle tissue. After collecting enough of these cells, they are then transferred to a broth consisting of a hundred or so nutrients and a “serum extracted from cow foetuses.” (Post admits this component will have “to change in the final product”).

Finally, you just let this petri dish protein experiment run its course and create the “fake” flesh.

Well, actually it takes several more days for cells to form thin sheets of muscle tissue. In about a week, these sheets grow in size enough to be wrapped around artificial anchors, and, then jolted with electricity (this actually causes them to contract like real muscles!).

To create a larger portion of meat, Post and colleagues will have to incorporate synthetic fat into the muscle tissue and then grow the “fillets” of some sort of biodegradable scaffold, which can be infused with nutrients via synthetic (polysaccharide) veins to keep the meat healthy and alive.

Post claims that the in vitro meat can be genetically altered to be more healthy (producing unsaturated fats) and can be created from any breed of animal. Post’s current work is focused on producing that fabled hamburger first (which could be publicly tested by some celebrity) and thus attracting investors. His efforts so far to create this artificial hamburger have cost about £200,000.

Investment capital, efficiency improvements, scalability, and public demand should do the rest.



A Meat-Free, Meat Facsimile… But is it Kosher?

As for Brown’s work creating a meat facsimile with non-animal products, his techniques are secretive and proprietary, but he is actively collaborating with several well-known, meat-eating chefs in order to get the tastes and textures just right.

Given recognition and investment capital, both Brown and Post plan to start with “processed meat products” and then, as the technology and techniques are refined, eventually offer fillets of meats and even chicken breasts.

As for religious considerations, Brown was initially concerned that religious folks might have trouble with the whole concept, and so consulted with imams and rabbis on the issue. To his surprise, he was informed that “as long as there are sufficient steps between source and product, the ‘meat’ will be kosher or halal.” [Source: The Guardian]

To read more about this significant development in ‘disruptive innovation’, check out this article in The Guardian: Fake meat: is science fiction on the verge of becoming fact?

Top Photo: test tube wieners by Liz McBurney for the Guardian

Second Photo: veggie burgers garnished with onion, ketchup, and cheddar cheese by SuziJane via ; Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

3 thoughts on “The Race to Make Fake Meat – Saving Animals and the Planet (and Disrupting the Meat Industry)”

  1. This is really just a form of cloning. I think that for the most part, many vegetarians are so because in their eyes, we’re killing a living thing. How would this change their way of thinking? It’s a fascinating subject, indeed. I have often wondered about chicken wings as they have become such a hot commodity lately, and thought about how is it that we’re able to “grow” so many chickens? I was imagining that we have devised a new-age chicken that grows ten pair of wings or something. Ridiculous, I know, but I ponder upon such things now and then. hahaha I think this is something that was bound to happen as we have to feed so many people on this planet. As I understand it, this would also offer meat with no antibiotics, steroids, etc, and is a “safer” and “healthier” alternative. Though, not being one to accept such drastic changes, I would be very hesitant in trying this, but it is definitely the way of the future. A bit scary. Soylent Green comes to mind (haha), but on the serious side; it’s a fascinating discovery. Good luck and good eats! 8o)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top