Why the first mass-produced cultured meat product won't be food

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

Czech start-up Bene Meat Technologies says it has the technology to produce cultivated meat for pet food purposes. GettyImages/Sally Anscombe
Czech start-up Bene Meat Technologies says it has the technology to produce cultivated meat for pet food purposes. GettyImages/Sally Anscombe

Related tags cultured meat cell-based meat lab-grown Pet Food

While in the long-term, Czech start-up Bene Meat Technologies plans to develop a cell-based steak product for human consumption, its short-term focus has pivoted to cultured pet food, CEO Roman Kříž tells FoodNavigator.

Bene Meat Technologies (BMT) was founded in January 2020 with the aim of developing cultivated meat for human consumption.

Three years on, and the company is ready...but for a different product category: BMT has announced it has the technology to produce cultivated meat for pet food purposes.

Further, the start-up is betting on pet food to be the first ‘economically meaningful and mass-produced‘ cultured meat product, FoodNavigator hears.

Steak and pet food an ‘equal priority’

The end-goal for BMT is to develop what it describes as the ‘holy grail’ in the development of cultured meat: steak. “The plan is to go forward to ‘steak’,” ​explained BMT CEO Roman Kříž, “and to use any possibility on the way”.

The first step in BMT’s process was to cultivate cell mass sustainably and for a ‘reasonable price’. At least part of this relied on reducing the cost of the growth media in the process. From the get-go, BMT rejected the use of foetal bovine serum (FSB) as growth media due to ‘ethical and economic reasons’. By late 2021, the company was developing its own growth factors in-house.

The ‘any possibility’ referenced by Kříž, in this case, is pet food. But as suggested, that is not BMT’s end-goal. The next step in development of its products for human consumption will focus on cultivated minced meat, made up of muscles, fat, and fibrocytes in around 1-3mm pieces.

“If everything goes well, that will come in about a year. Then [we’ll develop cultured meat from other animal [cells], and then ‘the steak’ – with a 3D structure and vascularisation,” ​the CEO continued, adding that meat for human consumption, and meat for pets, are now an ‘equal priority’.

“So pet food was the plan, it’s just not the final goal. And as we processed faster in FBS-free cultivation media development, it came sooner.”

Is the market ready for cultivated meat-based pet food?

For cultivated meat-based pet food to reach the masses, the end-users – and their owners – will need to approve of the product. BMT believes the market is ripe for this kind of disruption.

To begin with, the production of pet food is energy-intensive and ecologically demanding, noted the company, adding that at its current size, it is responsible for 25% of the carbon footprint of animal husbandry. According to a 2022 survey published in the Harvard Dataverse​, this aspect is viewed critically by more than 50% of breeders – 90% of whom regularly provide animal feed.

That same survey found that almost 40% of pet owners perceive the ethical dimension of animal breeding and slaughter as problematic. Fifty-percent of respondents said they would like to feed their pets with ethically and environmentally sound feed based on cultured meat.

pet food Sally Anscombe
Is the market ready for cultivated meat-based pet food? GettyImages/Sally Anscombe

Research conducted by NMS Market Research – looking into pet owners’ willingness to purchase pet food containing cultivated meat in the Czech Republic – revealed similar findings: 48% of respondents would prefer cultivated meat in pet food due to its health safety, 36% believe in higher quality raw materials, and 27% unanimously cited ethical and ecological aspects of production as being reasons for buying cultivated meat.

The other factor to consider is whether the pet food industry is ready to incorporate cultured meat ingredients into their products.

“According to our findings, this industry faces a number of challenges, ranging from increasing market regulation in terms of quality requirements, through fluctuating input prices, to complicated supply flows, and the contamination of products within the production process,” ​said Kříž.

“We want to offer pet food producers a technology that allows them to produce the key components of the final feed in a bioreactor, economically, efficiently, humanely, with constant quality, and without the need to rely on suppliers.”

Regulatory uncertainties

A potential upside in the manufacturing of cultivated meat-based pet food for market, compared to cultivated meat for human consumption, could be a more lenient pre-market approval process.

FoodNavigator asked the BMT CEO whether he expects the regulatory process for pet food to be less onerous than that required for human food. “Food for human consumption has the Novel Foods regulation. Unfortunately, there is no clear methodology for cultivated pet food approvals,” ​he told FoodNavigator. “Nobody is 100% sure whether ‘animal derivates’ or ‘cultivated microorganisms’ will be applied.”

The company consulted the relevant organisations in the Czech Republic on this precise topic, and on their advice, has sent a letter to the European Commission requesting clarification of this issue. “We will see after their reply how time consuming it will be. I think there will be a statement from the Commission after consultations with the European Food Safety Authority.”

ribeye grandriver
Bene Meat Technologies' goal remains the 'holy grain' of cultivated meat development: steak. GettyImages/grandriver

Which meat variety BMT will focus on for pet food raw materials will also depend on regulation, in part. “We have one cell line which meets the nutrition requirements and recommendations now. It will depend on the regulatory issues and the market’s reaction whether we develop cell lines based on other animals,” ​we were told. 

Wet or dry pet food? Watch this space

BMT is now finalising the development of its technology for scalable production of the main feed ingredients based on animal cell lines.

Whether the start-up’s raw materials will be best suited to wet or dry pet food has not yet been decided. “We will concentrate on the product/s that will bring the biggest benefit to our customers and to us,” ​Kříž explained. Indeed, BMT has not yet decided wither its customers will be current pet food producers, or whether it makes more sense for the start-up to go to market with the final product itself.

At this stage, however, the scientific team will be looking to involve relevant pet food manufacturers, so that the resulting product is compatible with their product and process requirements.

“We believe that our product, in the form of a completely scalable technology, will meet all of the needs of feed producers – we will deliver an economical and reliable technology for the production of animal feed input material that will meet the highest demands for environmental protection, humaneness, and nutritional values,” ​said Kříž.

“All of this together, along with the know-how of feed producers, will lead to an expansion of the range of animal lovers, and a solution to their current production problems.”

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