02 December 2022

Born in a bioreactor

In the USA, the sale of artificial meat was allowed

RIA Novosti, Vladislav Strekopytov. 

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a permit to Upside Foods to sell meat grown from animal stem cells. So far, this concerns only one product — artificial chicken. Hundreds of other startups are waiting for their turn.

Meat Revolution

Cultured meat has been a popular topic in recent years. Those who promote it proceed from the fact that the consumption of meat from slaughtered animals is unethical and also leads to an increase in harmful emissions into the atmosphere.

In order to change the situation and at the same time not to give up the animal protein necessary for the body, it is proposed to establish industrial production of meat from a test tube as soon as possible. We are not talking about a vegetable substitute, which has been sold in stores for a long time, but about a synthetic product created on the basis of natural animal cells.

Scientists have repeatedly demonstrated the possibility of producing artificial meat from stem cells in special bioreactors. In principle, the process is no different from growing tissues for transplantation. From the animal muscle sample, cell lines are isolated, which are then propagated in a special nutrient medium, where stem cells turn into muscle fibers.

Bioreactors are large isothermal containers into which a nutrient medium containing hormones and growth factors is fed. Inside, the conditions necessary for the proliferation and differentiation of stem cells are maintained. The mixing system ensures the homogenization of the medium, and the diffuser-aerator ensures the supply of oxygen.

Usually, newly formed cells are extracted in the form of a suspension, but they can be deposited on a pre-prepared organic framework. Then they get artificial meat that looks like real meat. So, scientists from Harvard University, using a gelatin base, has grown meat from rabbit and cow muscle cells that is indistinguishable from natural even at the level of microscopic structure.

Burger for 330 thousand dollars

The fact that it is theoretically possible to grow meat in industrial conditions was talked about more than 80 years ago — when the technology of cell line cultivation appeared. Winston Churchill in the futurological essay "Fifty Years Later", published in 1931, wrote: "We will avoid the absurdity of growing a whole chicken for eating breast or wing by creating these parts separately in a suitable environment. Synthetic food <...> will be practically indistinguishable from natural products."

Artificial muscle fibers were first obtained in the laboratory in 1971. But active research began only in the mid-1990s, after the FDA officially approved the technology developed by NASA specialists to provide long-term nutrition for astronauts in space. In 2008, an international consortium for the production of meat in vitro was created, and in November 2009, scientists from the Netherlands announced that they had managed to grow the first sample using live piglet cells in the laboratory.

The official release date of the new product on the commercial market is considered August 5, 2013 - Professor of Maastricht University Mark Post then presented the first hamburger containing 140 grams of cultured meat on the air. In the implementation of the project, the co-founder of Google Sergey Brin has invested more than 330 thousand US dollars.

In September 2019 , the Ochakov Food Ingredients Plant announced the creation of the first in Russian cutlets made of artificial meat. It took her two years and 900 thousand rubles to produce 40 grams of minced meat. The basis was a small piece of muscle tissue of a newborn calf.

The developers claim that domestic cultured meat can appear on Russian shelves by 2023, subject to the determination of the legal status of the product. According to the forecasts of the plant's experts, a kilogram will cost about 800 rubles at retail.

"There are quite a lot of startups in Russia that grow meat from stem cells," says Vitaly Shmalts, an expert on the food market, founder of the Food Up business accelerator. — According to my data, several companies are engaged in its certification. The approximate deadline for obtaining certificates is April—May 2023."

Gates, Musk and Branson are already in business

Now about 170 companies work with cultured meat all over the world. Some managed to attract significant investments — and a real race for leadership in the emerging market, the capacity of which is estimated at billions of dollars, began.

In November 2020, Israeli SuperMeat opened a test restaurant next to its pilot plant in Nesion. Journalists, experts and several ordinary consumers were able to try new dishes by looking through a glass window at the production process. However, everyone had to sign a disclaimer agreement because the company did not have time to get permission from regulatory authorities.

In December of the same year, the American Eat Just — the world's largest producer of substitutes for natural products with a capitalization of more than a billion dollars — began selling nuggets from cultured chicken in restaurants Singapore. This is the first state in the world to issue an official permit for meat from a test tube. The product safety check lasted two years.

Inspired by the success, Eat Just decided to expand its production capacity. At that time, she had only one 1200-liter bioreactor. Already in May 2022, the company began construction in the USA of the world's largest complex of ten bioreactors with a capacity of 250 thousand liters each - much more than any of the existing ones today. According to the plan, the enterprise will enter into operation at the end of 2024, and by 2030 its capacity should be 13 thousand tons of artificial chicken and beef per year. This is enough to supply tens of thousands of shops and restaurants around the world.

However, almost at the finish line, that is, at the stage of obtaining a sales permit from the FDA, Eat Just was ahead of another American company — Upside Foods (formerly known as Memphis Meats), which is partially owned by Tyson and Cargill, the two largest meat corporations in the world. In November 2021, it opened the first small plant for the production of cultured meat with a capacity of about 22 tons per year.

Upside Foods' investment activity is impressive: during just one round of financing in April this year, it managed to raise $400 million. The shareholders have already become Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Susie and Jack Welch, brother Ilona Musk — Kimbal Musk, the largest venture funds.

FDA approval is only the first step regarding the right to sell the product itself. A positive conclusion is needed to get started The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which should check the production capacity. And it is also necessary to standardize products and get labeling. But the company's representatives believe that these two steps will take much less time than the FDA approval.

The restraining factor remains the high price of cultivated products, which, however, is rapidly adapting to market conditions. Now it is about $ 90 per kilogram, but in a year, according to experts, it may decrease by at least half. And by the time the enterprises under construction reach their planned capacity, it will drop to the natural level altogether. Then the choice between natural and artificial meat will be determined solely by the taste preferences of the consumer. Or his ideas about the safety of the product.

Cellular agriculture

Manufacturers claim that cultured meat does not pose any health risks — on the contrary, it has advantages. There are many harmful bacteria and parasites in the animal's body, which do not always disappear after heat treatment, and the product from the test tube is the result of sterile production.

In addition, there are no antibiotics in it, which are stuffed with animals on farms. As well as saturated fats, which cause high cholesterol, heart disease and obesity. Pure muscle tissue — but because of this, there is no juicy taste, for which many people love fried meat so much.

"From the point of view of the impact on the human body, cultured meat is absolutely similar to ordinary meat," notes Alexey Kabanov, Deputy director of the ANO SIC "Healthy Nutrition". — The main argument in favor of its production is that it causes less damage to the environment than traditional animal husbandry, and does not harm animals. Also, the meat from the test tube retains freshness longer, because it is produced in sterile conditions and there are no microorganisms in it."

Regulatory authorities in most countries, including Russia, are still wary of the new product. According to experts, artificial meat may contain an excessive amount of hormones or growth factors, the impact of which on health is not fully understood, and a plant-based nutrient medium can cause allergies in some people.

However, despite the bureaucratic obstacles, supporters of the production of cultured meat are optimistic. They are confident that in the near future a new branch of the economy will emerge in the world — cellular agriculture.

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