“I think cultured meat products will gain traction pretty fast in Japan and China, whereas maybe countries like France might hold out a lot longer,” said Professor Nahmias, a professor of bioengineering at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a specialist in tissue engineering techniques refined from regenerative medicine.
Ultimately, plant-based and cultured meat will likely displace a significant percentage of conventional meat production, predicted Nahmias, who was speaking to FoodNavigator-USA after Israel inked a $300m trade deal with China that will see the two collaborate on a variety of clean-tech projects from clean meat (meat grown from cells in bioreactors instead of animals) to clean energy.
“Even if people in some countries are trying to reduce meat consumption, in China alone there are still hundreds of millions of people that are demanding it, and if we don’t change anything, meat costs will spiral up."
Indeed, large meat companies are logical partners for clean meat companies as they have the infrastructure, contacts and marketing capabilities to take it to a mass audience, noted Professor Nahmias.
“Cultured meat technologies, once validated at scale, will probably be bought off by large corporations and replace most traditional farming techniques. Cellular agriculture could ultimately replace traditional animal agriculture,”
“We’re effectively sending out the equivalent of seeds to farmers to grow their own biomass.”
Professor Yaakov Nahmias, founder, Future Meat Technologies
Professor Nahmias, who had licensed his cultured meat technology to a company called SuperMeat a couple of years ago, has since set up his own operation called Future Meat Technologies, while SuperMeat cofounder Ido Savir has retained the SuperMeat trademark, but not the IP.
“The way we see it, instead of giving farmers a barn with 50,000 chickens, why not give them a small factory and 10,000 machines,” added Nahmias, who is about to close a $2m funding round to help him develop his ‘distributive manufacturing’ model, whereby small businesses (and ultimately even consumers) could produce small quantities of ‘meat’ locally in their own bioreactors using capsules containing ‘starter’ tissue produced by Future Meat Technologies.
“They buy packets from us and sell meat directly to consumers," said Nahmias, who likes the terms ‘clean meat’ and ‘cultured meat’ but prefers ‘animal-free meat,’ “as it is the most straightforward.
“We essentially give the farmers a collection of cells in a matrix or a piece of tissue that’s roughly the size of an espresso capsule – just a few milligrams – and the nutrients to feed the cells, and then they grow them for about 10-18 days and that would produce fully fledged tissue [ie. ‘meat], or a raw material [such as fat, or muscle] - that would get sent on to a meat preparation facility.
“It’s a better model than having everything done centrally by a mega corporation. We’re effectively sending out the equivalent of seeds to farmers to grow their own biomass," added Nahmias, who claims his company is the only one with “a GMO-free, unlimited cell source capable of differentiating to both muscle and fat, growing in an [animal] serum-free, antibiotic free cultured medium.”*
Another Israeli clean-meat startup, tentatively named Meat the Future, has been set up by Professor Shulamit Levenberg (dean of the biomedical engineering department at Israel's Technion institute of technology), who is supported by incubator, The Kitchen, and is working toward commercializing tissue-engineering technology to create steak from bovine cells in a bioreactor.
The first factories would be our own
But who would these potential partners be? Farmers looking to diversify? Meat wholesalers, processors and distributors? A new breed of clean meat specialists? Or further down the line, consumers?
In the first instance, farmers, said Nahmias: “That would be the most socially correct and economically appropriate model.”
However, he added, “The first factories would be our own. We would start working with restaurant and food chains to gain widespread consumer acceptance.”
Muscle cells, fat cells, connective tissue…
So what kinds of cells is Professor Nahmias working with?
“Like everyone else we start with a biopsy, so we take cells, but we don’t take muscle cells or muscle stem cells, which are satellite cells, we use a different type of cell – a mesenchymal type of cell [from chickens] that grows faster and in a cheaper medium as it has fewer nutritional requirements than myocytes [muscle cells] and satellite cells. Our cells have the unique potential of differentiating into myocytes and adipocytes [fat cells],” he said.
“We are using connective tissue cells that is spontaneously immortalized [they have an unlimited capacity to reproduce and divide] without genetic modification [some companies are using GM techniques to make this happen]. These cells can be pushed ‘sideways’ toward muscle or fat, which is very important for the taste, aroma and texture of the meat, and we’re growing them in a patent-protected serum-free, animal-free culture medium only using FDA approved materials and without the use of antibiotics.
He added: “We can produce animal fat en masse; we’ve patented it, and we think it is going to be one of the major breakthroughs. I have a feeling that we might see hybrid products in future that might use this, things like plant protein combined with animal fat [made in bioreactors].
“We established our propriety chicken cell line in January, our serum-free medium formulation in April, and efficient differentiation to fat in June, so that’s a lot of major discoveries in six months. The next milestone is scaling production toward a public tasting of chicken nuggets or meatballs in 2018 with the first working bioreactor prototype expected in 2019.”
“Instead of giving farmers a barn with 50,000 chickens, why not give them a small factory and 10,000 machines?”
Professor Yaakov Nahmias, founder, Future Meat Technologies
The design mimics animal physiology using a dialysis circuit to recirculate the culture medium, eliminating ammonia and slashing consumable costs, claimed Nahmias, who predicts each unit will cost around $300, and will be capable of producing clean meat for around $5 per kg.
* Future Meat Technologies does not use animal serum (the liquid part of blood) in its process (some start-ups growing cultured beef, for example, began by using fetal bovine serum, a byproduct of the livestock industry, although they have since claimed to have validated animal-free alternatives).
Keen to learn more about clean meat?
Head to FOOD VISION USA in Chicago next month, where you can quiz Dr Eitan Fischer, director of cellular agriculture at Hampton Creek; and Dr Liz Specht, senior scientist at The Good Food Institute, about the potential of this technology.