Cellular protein not yet a feasible meat alternative, researcher says

(Eat Just/Business Wire)

With global protein consumption expected to increase significantly by 2050, Tim McAllister sees room in the marketplace for all forms of protein production to meet this demand.  

However, McAllister, principal research scientist in ruminant nutrition and microbiology at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Lethbridge Research and Development Centre, anticipates it will be some time before cellular protein becomes an actual alternative to livestock protein sources.  

“These systems right now, they’re not really economically viable as it stands today, but there’s a lot of research going on in the medical community into this technology, so there’s definitely going to be advancements,” McAllister said in a May 12 webinar hosted by the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.  

Potential growth in this market, he said, “will depend a lot on how much they can lower the cost of production and what consumer acceptance will look like.”  

The technology used to create cellular protein, also known as lab-grown meat, was developed within the field of regenerative medicine. The first cellular meat product was a hamburger created in 2013 in Holland. More recently, a lab-grown chicken nugget was produced in Singapore in 2020, but this market is still in development and not commercially available.   

After taking a muscle biopsy from an animal, “those muscle cells are subjected to an enzyme and basically a breakdown procedure to isolate the individual myogenic satellite cells,” said McAllister. The myogenic satellite cells are added to what’s known as a “nutrient broth” and exposed to oxygen to grow inside a bioreactor. The cells form into myotubes, which are then assembled into muscle fibres.  

In addition to the high cost of technology used in this form of production, a key ingredient in the nutrient broth is fetal bovine serum, a combination of nutrients and hormones used for cell growth, which costs around $1,800 per litre.  

“That first burger that they produced cost about $325,000 to produce, and that’s because of the complexity of that nutrient media,” he said. “All of that material was coming from medical-grade suppliers, so it’s extremely expensive to use that as a sort of media as a source of production for these cultured-based meats. They claim to have that reduced down to $12 now.”  

Currently, there are limitations to what kind of meat can be produced by this method. “There’s a lot of technological advancements that we still need in order for cultured meat to reach anywhere near the same level of diversity in meat quality that we have in the existing cuts that are derived from livestock production,” said McAllister.  

At this point, the muscle fibres formed from the myotubes can only form meat that’s best for a ground product, hence the creation of lab-grown burgers and sausages. Without connective tissue, blood vessels, neurons and fat deposition, it’s not possible to produce other cuts of meat.  

“Intact muscle is much more complex than these muscle fibres and the myotubes,” he said. “So producing a steak or a roast is beyond the ability to do that right now with the current technology.”  

Extra ingredients would need to be added for the product to taste like real meat, and lab-grown beef lacks nutrients such as iron and vitamin B12. Nor would it meet the criteria required by vegetarian or vegan consumers, due to the use of animal muscle cells in developing this protein.  

“Some companies are claiming that they can now produce the cultured meat with just plant-based media,” McAllister said, adding that he’s unsure of how well that would work, given that “many of those growth factors…are specific to animal systems. They’re not present in plant-based systems.”   

Claims of lower environmental impact up for debate 

While advocates of cellular protein argue it will have a lower carbon footprint and environmental impact than livestock production, “that really depends on how you look at the system itself,” said McAllister. “The amount of fossil fuel use associated with the production of in vitro meat would actually be larger than what it is for beef production or other livestock production systems, and that’s because of the infrastructure that’s required to build the factories.”   

While comparisons of estimated global warming potential place this system as having lower greenhouse gas emissions than beef production, this is due to methane emissions resulting from the latter. Cellular protein production would result in carbon dioxide emissions, not methane. McAllister notes that carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for a half-life of about 1,000 years, compared to the 10-12 years of methane. This argument “also (fails) to recognize the carbon sequestration or carbon storage that can occur in those extensive grassland ecosystems,” he said.  

Proponents of this system also claim it will reduce the loss of genetic diversity in livestock, but McAllister stated the opposite would result. “Mark Post, the fellow who did the first burger, estimated that we could produce all of the beef in the world with 33,000 animals globally if we used cultured-based meat systems. That’s obviously going to result in a dramatic decrease in our beef cattle population around the world,” he said.   

“It’ll reduce the diversity we have in some of our more extensive rangelands and other areas of the world where we need that genetic diversity within our herds in order for them to be efficient in the various ecosystems that they reside.”  

Arguments such as reducing soil erosion and no antibiotics or pesticides involved also fall short, he added, as well-managed grazing prevents erosion, and regulatory agencies have controls to ensure those compounds aren’t present in the final product entering the food chain.  

There are also issues with the antimicrobials often added to culture media to prevent contamination of the cells in the lab. “Using antimicrobials for the production of the lab-grown meat here would be a non-starter. That wouldn’t be approved,” he said. “There’s no withdrawal time — it’s directly interacting with the tissue that would be harvested and used as a protein source.”  

Other disadvantages include the loss of the many secondary products that come from livestock and the negative impacts of removing livestock from grassland ecosystems that rely on grazing for their health and biodiversity.  

“There could be cultural losses as well, especially in developing nations. Livestock are often part of the religious framework within many of those cultures; their wealth revolves around that as well, so it’s an important part of their farming community.”   

Ultimately, whether consumers are willing to purchase cellular protein will play a major role in the potential growth of this market, McAllister said. “There’s a lot of variability if you look at consumer surveys. You really can’t tell until you put it on the shelf,” he said.   

“They really make that decision when they reach into the meat counter and they select whatever protein source they want…and that’s not always the same as what they say when they answer a survey.” 

About the author

Field editor

Piper Whelan

Piper Whelan is a field editor with Canadian Cattlemen. She grew up on a purebred, Maine-Anjou ranch near Irricana, Alta., and previously wrote for Top Stock, Western Horse Review, and various beef breed publications.



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