‘Clean meat’ coming to a supermarket shelf near you, but when?

‘Lab meat’ will sit ‘somewhere between low-cost hamburgers and high-end cuts’

Ireland’s livestock sector shows little signs as yet of engaging with so-called “clean meat”, a new technology expected to cause significant food-sector disruption over the next five to 10 years. Environmentalists, investors, animal rights activists and major US and German meat companies, meanwhile, are mostly united in their support of what is also called lab, fermented, cultured or synthetic meat, seeing it as a possible silver-bullet solution to a range of critical environmental, health and welfare issues.

Asked about clean meat technology, five of Ireland's leading meat companies (ABP Food Group, Greencore Group, Moy Park, Dawn Meats and Dunbia) made no comment. Bord Bia, the Food Safety Authority and Meat Technology Ireland (a research partnership involving Enterprise Ireland, Teagasc, the Dublin Institute of Technology, Dublin City University, University College Cork, the Irish Cattle Breeders Federation, ABP Ireland and others) said they did not know of any Irish clean-meat projects.

A sixth meat producer, Kepak, said in a statement it was "continually exploring innovative nutritious meat and/or plant-based products for inclusion" in its product range. It went to say that while championing meat as a healthy product food, "we recognise the trends in veganism, vegetarianism and flexitarianism, and we are responding to that". It did not say how it was responding, however.

While many would argue that because Irish meat is mainly grass-fed (not raised in US-style feedlots known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs), there is no urgent need to remove animals from the food chain. Even so, recent assessment of global protein producers (fish and animal) points to a range of weaknesses.


Danger areas

The report, by the UK-based Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return (FAIRR), an investor lobby representing assets worth $7.8 trillion, says food company danger areas include emissions, pollution, water scarcity and reputational damage related to animal-welfare concerns or dangerous labour conditions. Asked about Irish food company risks, FAIRR’s head of research and corporate engagement Aarti Ramachandran pointed to emissions breaches, regulation and alternative proteins.

"The Irish Environmental Protection Agency has said emissions of three of the five main pollutants are going in the wrong direction, making future compliance with EU limits more challenging . . . [and] ammonia limits are being breached due to the rapid expansion of dairy and beef production in Ireland in recent years."

She warned also that food companies in Ireland and elsewhere will start to hit legal and physical limits due to new regulations or community resistance to farm expansion. At the same time, they will have to grapple with a growing range of clean meat- and plant-based products appealing to consumers as being cruelty-, pathogen- and antibiotic-free, and, environmentally friendly.

In the US, major food companies are already addressing such threats. Meat giant Tyson Foods recently took a stake in clean meat start-up Memphis Meats, alongside multinational agricultural titan Cargill Inc, billionaires Richard Branson, Bill Gates and actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

Closer to home, major German poultry producer PHW formed a strategic alliance last January with Israeli-based clean meat company SuperMeat. PHW's head of alternative protein, Marcus Keitzer, said in an email that although poultry remains its core business, PHW now defines itself as a supplier of high-quality proteins. He expects clean-meat products to play an increasing role in the food sector, as soon as they reach the market, even if traditional meat retains a substantial market share over the next 30 years. In the same vein, PHW signed a sales partnership in April with Beyond Meat, producers of the plant-based "Beyond Burger".

How quickly Irish meat producers might feel the competitive clean-meat heat remains to be seen, but Peter Verstrate, food scientist and chief executive of the Netherlands-based clean meat company, Mosa Meat, believes about a decade. (Another Mosa Meat scientist is Mark Post, who produced the world's first slaughter-free hamburger in 2013.) Verstrate, originally from the traditional meat sector, says he does not have a problem with killing animals for food, it's rather that clean meat "is a major improvement on every level. Meat production is getting out of hand . . . there is too much of it and the cost is too high for the planet.''

Consumer reaction

Another uncertainty is consumer reaction. "Surveys consistently tell us consumers places a high priority on natural products," says Meat Technology Ireland director and scientist Dr John Colreavy. Clean meat companies do not necessarily disagree, instead they expect consumers to quickly overcome uncertainties. "A range of surveys show 30 to 50 per cent are willing to try it,'' says Verstrate, and, although a study in Florida found that people see it as unnatural, "they are also willing to try it'', which could relate to "growing awareness of the serious downsides to today's intensive farming processes".

SuperMeat co-founder Shir Friedman cites another survey that shows only 30 per cent of participants refusing to try clean meat. “And once people were shown the benefits in terms of the environment and animal welfare,” that number dropped even further.

UCD professor of food science Frank Monahan was similarly unbothered by the idea of eating clean meat. "All foods are made from the same basic constituents – amino acids, fatty acids, sugars, vitamins and minerals, and if you can grow meat, or make it from plants, then why not?"

Looking ahead, Aleph Farms' (another Israeli-based clean-meat producer) chief executive Didier Toubia is working on branding and positioning. "[Clean meat] will sit somewhere between low-cost hamburgers and high-end meat cuts," while the name must convey not only the animal- and environment-friendly aspects, but also transparency and traceability. "That's a big issue following the horse-meat scandal [of 2013]," he says.

Clean meat: the next steps

With the science of clean-meat production mainly in the bag, and at least three companies saying they have developed plant-based (rather than the more controversial bovine-based) growth mediums for meat-cell replication, next steps involve regulatory approval and moving from petri-dish to commercial production using an energy-efficient process.

Shir Friedman of SuperMeat believes US regulators will see clean meat as regular meat in the same way water-grown, or hydroponic, lettuces are seen as lettuce. This means US supermarkets will likely be the first to have it on their shelves. In the EU, it will be regulated under the novel food rules. No clean meat applications have been received. But Netherlands-based Mosa Meat aims to complete its application within 12 months, while Didier Toubia of Aleph Farms, another Israeli-based producer, is aiming for 2020.

Scaling up the production process, meanwhile, mainly involves building the right bioreactors: large metal tanks of nutritional liquid where tiny samples of animal tissue cells multiply and then differentiate into muscle cells.

Inspired by a Winston Churchill quote about growing parts, rather than whole animals, UK farmer and cured meat retailer Illtud Llyr Dunsford is working with a Finnish-UK research team to design what could be the world's first clean-meat bioreactor. As well as producing clean meat at scale, the project aims to maximise any normally wasted products (eg waste yeast from bakeries and breweries in the growth medium) and minimise fossil-fuel usage.