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In Singapore, you can buy cultured chicken nuggets as of last year. Because growing meat is still very expensive and the snack should still be somewhat affordable, the cultured meat is mixed with vegetable meat substitutes. Meat can be cultured by growing animal stem cells (in this case from a chicken) together with a growth medium in a bioreactor. The cells divide under the right conditions in the reactor. When these have divided sufficiently, they are stimulated to become a muscle or fat cell, and together, the two form tissues. Multiple tissues together become a piece of meat. Depending on the process used, growing meat takes several weeks to months.

To get the cells to divide for the chicken nuggets, American Eat Just now uses the blood of unborn calves as a growth fluid. It contains a mixture of fats, sugars, proteins, vitamins and hormones that works ideally for cell division. According to the company, a plant-based alternative has already been developed that should eventually replace fetal calf serum.

The use of fetal calf serum has been under fire from the cultured meat industry for some time. This is because it is not obtained in an animal-friendly way, to put it mildly. For this serum, you have to slaughter a pregnant cow, remove the uterus and insert a long needle into the still-beating heart of the calf to tap the blood. For this reason, Dutch companies like Meatable and Mosameat refuse to use fetal calf serum.

No need for calf serum

Alternatively, Meatable uses pluripotent cells, which are cells that can still develop into all the types of cells that make up an animal at birth. To grow them in a controlled manner, they use a technique developed at the University of Cambridge. According to a written response from Meatable, this allows them to avoid using calf serum and provides the cells with nutrients that are the same as the supplements added to animal foods.

Mosameat also avoids using calf serum to grow their meat. In 2019, the company came out with an animal-free “culture medium” based on expensive proteins from the pharmaceutical industry. Last week, the company announced that it is receiving two million euros from Europe to work with animal nutrition producer Nutreco to determine whether they can make a growth medium from Nutreco’s residual streams. With this grant, Mosameat expects to be able to reduce the costs of cultured meat considerably.

Read more about Mosameat

Use of calf serum ethically not justifiable

According to Linsay Ketelings, who works at the Food Claims Centre in Venlo at Maastricht University, Netherlands, there is no doubt that no one in the industry wants to work with the animal-unfriendly calf serum anymore. “The use of this serum is unsellable if you claim that cultured meat is animal friendly. Besides being incredibly expensive, you just can’t justify it ethically.”

The reason it was difficult to replace until recently, she says, has everything to do with the complex composition of the calf serum. “It contains all kinds of proteins that signal the cells to grow. This serum does that very efficiently. It remains to be seen whether alternatives are just as good. Also, each company uses slightly different cells or the culture processes differ from each other. So the ‘recipe’ for optimal cell division may well differ. But that is something that is being researched in depth.”

Another bump in the road for cultured meat, according to Ketelings, is consumer acceptance. She spoke with several cultured meat experts and conducted research on the food safety of cultured meat. “It’s a new product that a large group of people are somewhat wary of. One of the reasons for this is the image. If you see a picture of cultured meat, it’s always in a petri dish. It looks like it came from a lab. People think this is scary. They also generally think eating meat grown in a bioreactor is strange, even though yogurt is also made in bioreactors. And we don’t think that’s strange, do we? This is where I think an important role lies for the cultured meat industry. These companies need to get their act together when introducing their products. They have to be transparent. That way, they can eliminate any concerns,” explains Ketelings.

Eating meat but still wanting to live sustainably

And the sustainability argument? Can that still win people over? Yes, says Ketelings. Her research also shows that there are plenty of people who do find cultured meat a good alternative. “For people who like to eat meat but still want to live conscientiously, it’s a good solution. Again, cultured meat companies need to get their information right. What is in it? How is the meat grown? This is especially important during the introductory stage, where nothing can go wrong.”

So how big is the advantage of cultured meat over “real” meat?

For this, Ketelings refers to a study by the independent research bureau CE Delft that was commissioned by The Good Food Institute and the Belgian animal rights organization GAIA to make an extensive analysis. “Because cultured meat is not yet produced on a large scale, scientists have taken a hypothetical scenario, which is of course never complete. But the study is quite extensive and does give an accurate picture.”

Climate impact of cultured meat

The study looks at the impact per kilogram of product on climate, land and water use and particulate matter production, among other things. The figures were compiled into an environmental score. For the impact of regular meat, the researchers relied on data from previous studies. The scientists calculated various scenarios. They calculated the impact of cultured meat on the basis of the energy mix in 2030 and a scenario in which the production runs entirely on green energy. For normal livestock farming, in addition to the current impact, they also calculated an ambitious scenario in which the industry does as much as possible to reduce emissions. What did they find?

In each scenario, the impact of cultured meat is lower than that of “real” beef. In the ambitious scenario, in which the livestock industry minimizes its climate impact as much as possible, it does worse than pork and chicken with the projected average energy mix for 2030. But when produced with green electricity, it has less environmental impact than all other meats.

Source: CE Delft

According to Ketelings, it will be some time before cultured meat is actually on the market. She doesn’t dare put a figure on how long exactly. “Any company that wants to bring cultured meat to the market will have to make a case showing that it can be produced safely and that nothing can go wrong during this process. They also have to describe the culture serum in it. This is being evaluated by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and it can take a few years. As far as I know, no company has submitted this yet in Europe.”