It is currently estimated that 1.5 years of production and waste regeneration is required to meet the world’s food needs. By 2050, the human population is expected to reach 9.77 billion people. To fully meet food needs, it is necessary to increase production by 50-60%. This, of course, comes with the attendant problems such as greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, degradation of water resources, etc. So in vitro meat is presented as an alternative to tackle this problem, but is it really a viable option?
What is this meat production technique?
This method consists of producing meat in vitro from stem cells that are reproduced in a Petri dish. The reproduction of these organisms occurs naturally. However, we are still a long way from obtaining meat identical to that taken from a real animal. The lab-produced piece does not contain nerves, blood vessels, adipose tissue, etc.
Another disadvantage of this food is its taste, which is not identical to that of natural meat. Laboratory-produced meat is low in myoglobin, that is, iron. It has to be seasoned with multiple ingredients to try to resemble the real food. Work is also underway to mass-produce this meat.
Highly involved private sector
At the moment, the research and development of in vitro meat is exclusively in the private sector, involving about 50 star-ups. One of them is the French company Gourmey, which seeks to produce foie gras from egg cells and duck liver fat produced entirely in the laboratory. The Spanish firm BioTech Foods is leading the Meat4All project, which aims to put the European Union at the forefront in the production of this type of meat.
In Europe, in vitro meat will be regulated by “Novelfood” legislation since it is a new food. Before this, it is necessary to test the safety, including the material used (plastics, etc.) as well as the culture medium. Another aspect to consider is the value of this type of meat, since in 2013 the first in vitro beef steak reached €250,000 for 140 g of meat. Currently this price has dropped considerably, however, it is still quite expensive compared to the natural product, with the laboratory-produced one costing €46 for a 5 mm thick slice.
When will we see this meat in supermarkets?
According to Beatriz Jacoste, director of KM ZERO Food Innovation Hub, it is very likely that we will see in vitro meat in U.S. supermarkets in a few years. In Europe, on the other hand, this seems to be a more distant reality, as bureaucracy slows down the process.
According to the report published by the company IDTechEx: Cultured Meat 2021-2041: Technologies, Markets, Forecasts (2021) in the next few years, the United States could become the second country to adopt this type of food, following the approval of the commercialization in 2020 of in vitro chicken nuggets by the government of Singapore. As far as Europe is concerned, legislative reforms could take place relatively quickly, since the old continent has one of the best regulatory pathways in the world, and in vitro meat is expressly mentioned in the regulation on novel foods.
We are still far from mass production of this type of food, and this type of technology faces bureaucratic barriers yet to be overcome. It is unlikely that in the next few years we will see a complete replacement of meat extracted from real animals by that produced in the laboratory. However, the studies and tests are very promising, and as the technology advances and costs are reduced, this type of meat will become more relevant and will begin to gain popularity around the world. In spite of its early stage, it is seen as a real alternative to face the environmental problems caused by meat production.