What if you could take the pig out of the bacon?
We’re getting there. Slowly, but maybe surely.
This week, the path toward animal-free meat grew slightly clearer in a paper published in the journal Scientific Reports.
The findings feed the notion that in several years you may feast on a real burger — not tofu or some portobello stand-in, but real flesh — made without livestock.
Animal rights groups speak giddily about the prospect. Environmentalists cheer on the developments, imagining a hot dog with a far smaller carbon footprint. The meat industry says, essentially, bring it on.
“Kudos … to these innovative scientists,” said Janet Riley, a vice president of the American Meat Institute. “Imitation is the highest form of flattery.”
She also said important factors — particularly taste and cost — mean the livestock business isn’t quaking in its boots. So Missouri, seventh in U.S. pork production, and Kansas, third in American beef output, should feel no imminent economic threat.
Indeed, scientists still labor just to grow meat artificially. They’ve yet to tinker with its flavors, smells and mouth feel. Any product brought to market will have to battle an intuitive yuck factor along with the sort of concerns some consumers already foster about genetically modified crops.
Researchers agree the first ground-meat versions to come to market in the next five or 10 years will cost more than ordinary prime cuts — marketed to people who refuse to eat anything with a face either out of concern for animal treatment or the environment.
Over time, they hope, a new meat industry might invent ways to manufacture muscle tissue that’s actually cheaper than raising animals. After all, livestock waste so many calories growing bones, organs, hooves and beaks.
Today, for instance, it takes about 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat. If you’re growing only muscle tissue, and maybe a little fat for flavor and moisture, a pound of raw material might net nearly a pound of meat. Someday.
“It’s probably going to be some years yet before cultured meat is available for consumers,” said Erin Kim, a spokeswoman for New Harvest. The research institute funds research into “cell agriculture” to make milk, meat, eggs, leather and such without animals. “More scientific advances are coming all the time.”
The article published this week by researchers, including one current and one former member of the University of Missouri faculty, showed two advances working with pig cells. Coupled with mounting scientific and production breakthroughs elsewhere, the techniques could ultimately bring Jetsons-style meat to market.
First, the scientists transformed adult tissue cells taken from livestock into a pluripotent state, meaning they can be tweaked to grow into muscle good for frying, grilling or baking. Seizing the destiny of pluripotent cells also provides starter material that could theoretically reproduce endlessly in a way adult cells used in past lab-grown-meat experiments could not.
Second, the researchers showed how to nurture the tissue growth without animal serum, the liquid that blood cells and platelets float in. Animal serum has been used in the manufacturing of other lab-grown meats. But it’s an impractical ingredient to harvest for commercial meat production. As a replacement, the scientists created a synthetic cocktail made of many of the same components found in serum but without having to draw them from a live animal.
Together, the findings add to the potential tools that might make meat without so much as a moo, oink or cluck.
“Ideally, we believe that our process can be much more efficient than (feed) consumption by cattle because we’re only producing the product that the consumer wants” — muscle, said Nicholas Genovese, the lead author of the paper.
He started some of the work with the help of a grant from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals as a post-doctoral researcher at MU. Now he’s employed at California-based Memphis Meats. The company hopes to start selling some form of animal-free ground meat in five years.
The company primed the promotion pump a year ago, releasing a video of a young woman tasting a tiny meatball made from lab-grown muscle and prepared gourmet style. The smaller-than-a-golfball meatball cost $1,200.
But, says Memphis Meats spokesman David Kay, the cost has dropped dramatically in the year since the meatball was seared on camera. In “five years or so,” he said, the company will bring its first cultured meat product to market. It’ll be pricier then than regular meat to start.
Eventually, the goal is a cheaper, more sustainable meal.
“We’re getting there,” he said.
In 2013, Mark Post, a professor of vascular physiology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, invited journalists and foodies to an event in London where he bit into a $325,000 burger he’d grown in the lab. It was part of his evangelizing for more research.
The road is still a difficult one. Paul Mozdziak, an expert in cell culture techniques at North Carolina State University, is working on growing turkey cells. He thinks that bird cells will be easier to manipulate and that he can do it without genetic tinkering that could run into both regulatory issues and consumer resistance.
One key will be getting the serum replacements right, mixing salts, amino acids and yeast cultures. It’ll be tricky, he said, to build miniature scaffolds, likely constructed from edible plant material, to grow on and become thick enough to mimic animal flesh.
“We need to re-create that architecture,” Mozdziak said. “Muscle is a very complicated business.”
Genovese’s research began in an MU laboratory overseen by R. Michael Roberts, a professor of animal sciences and biochemistry. Roberts has done work for years on pluripotent cells and is one of the authors in the Nature article.
He’s not terribly bullish on the prospects of man-made meat. “Why not just eat soybeans?” Roberts asks.
Still, he said the paper showed new efficiencies in growing meat in the lab. If cost-effective commercial production remains decades away, Roberts says, “it is plausible.”
PETA is funding research — including selling its share of a patent to Memphis Meats at a discount — out of sympathy to livestock. But organization president Ingrid Newkirk said manufactured meat could quickly prove cheaper than traditional agriculture.
Fantasies of the recent past, she said, feel increasingly like realities of a fast-approaching future.
“It was once a gleam in a professor’s eye,” the PETA president said. “Now it’s starting to happen.”