Animal agribiz is about dead meat; cellular ag isn’t
CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts––Rigor mortis is the biggest technical problem the meat industry has, John R. White Company meat scientist Benjy Mikel, Ph.D., of Birmingham, Alabama, emphasized on July 20, 2018 to the New Harvest 2018 conference on cellular agriculture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab.
“Cellular agriculture” has come to the fore as the preferred term for the rapidly emerging technology of cultivating animal products and byproducts, such as meat, milk, eggs, leather, and even human replacement organs, from cell cultures.
From invasive to vegan
Some of the products and processes offered in the New Harvest 2018 show-and-tell sessions involved what might be frankly described as invasive animal research. One speaker displayed multiple slides of materials built upon mouse heart tissue, developed in the quest to grow human organs that can circumvent the many problems inherent in transplants––including the perennial scarcity of potential organ donors with compatible blood types.
Other presentations focused on developing yeast-based “real” meat, milk, eggs, and leather which could accurately be described as vegan: chemically identical to the products derived from animals, but made in bioreactor vessels instead of animals’ bodies, grown in mediums derived wholly from plants, using cell structures taken from naturally shed feathers or even dandruff.
Partnership with animal ag?
Refusing to call any of the cell-cultured products “meat,” “milk,” “eggs,” or “leather,” but welcoming the investment of scientists and entrepreneurs in developing them, Mikel suggested that the most lucrative future for the new technology might be realized through working in partnership with traditional animal agribusiness.
Mikel pointed out repeatedly that most of the money and sales volume in animal agriculture is associated not with the “center-of-the-plate” whole cuts of meat, but rather with processed products and byproducts involving combinations of ingredients.
Mikel appeared to envision considerable opportunity for cellular products to replace materials of actual animal origin everywhere except in the center of the plate for average American eaters––which in itself could transform the meat industry, by substantially reducing the profits to be derived from processing the byproducts of slaughter.
Solving rigor mortis & decomposition
But Mikel also hinted time and again in detailed descriptions of how rigor mortis and decomposition create technical difficulties for meat processors that cellular agriculture perhaps can displace meat from the center of the plate, if cellular producers can solve those problems.
The long and short of the rigor mortis and decomposition issue is that conventionally produced meat, milk, eggs, and leather come from the dead remains of formerly living animals.
Living animals, Mikel demonstrated, flexing his hands and taking a few steps around the stage, must have the ability to tense and relax muscles. Almost everything a living animal does involves muscular contraction and release. This is what develops the texture and chemical characteristics of meat in the first place.
Developing meat without animal behavior
To compete successfully with meat produced in animals, cellular producers must learn to develop those same characteristics without the processes associated with animal behavior.
For example, culture-grown meat might be mechanically flexed, or might be rapidly frozen and thawed to produce contraction and expansion.
Mikel did not go into the details of how cellular producers might replicate the physical characteristics of meat, but did suggest that if this is achieved outside of a living animal, perhaps cellular producers can also find a way to retard rigor mortis or perhaps avoid it altogether.
How to beat dead meat
Since all organic materials decompose, decomposition cannot be thwarted, so far as anyone envisions, but cellular producers might be able to slow the decomposition process to an extent giving them a considerable competitive advantage over traditional meat producers, even setting aside the advantages of not having the same infrastructure expense and waste disposal quandaries.
To animal advocates, especially vegans and vegetarians, the chief potential advantage of cellular agriculture is the potential it offers for bypassing the enormous suffering involved in raising and killing nearly 10 billion animals per year in the U.S. alone, including more than nine billion chickens, to obtain meat, milk, eggs, and leather.
The major market for cellular agriculture, however, is not among vegans and vegetarians, growing numbers of whom tend to be satisfied with plant-based foods and synthetic textiles whether or not they in any way resemble traditional meat, milk, eggs, and leather.
Rather, just as the major market for “meat analog” products made from such materials as soy and seitan has proved to be among meat-eaters cutting back on meat consumption, the major market for cell-cultured food products is expected to be among meat-eating mainstream middle Americans.
Do-it-yourselfers & cannibals
Addressing the New Harvest 2018 conference several hours after Mikel, researcher Xun Wang of Triton Algae Innovations, Ltd. in San Diego, California humorously anticipated that cellular agriculture technology might eventually be perfected and downscaled enough to enable “homebrewers” to invent their own custom-made products.
Some media commentators have suggested that cell-culturing could eventually be used to produce versions of the meat of endangered and even extinct species, and/or human flesh, for would-be cannibals.
Since the products and byproducts of cell-culturing will presumably be chemically indistinguishable from those of actual animals, cell-culturing protected species and/or human flesh could complicate law enforcement.
Jurisdictional conflict: USDA v. FDA
But the law enforcement issues associated with cellular agriculture are already complicated by jurisdictional conflicts between the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which has regulatory authority over farm products and food made from farm products, and the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), which has regulatory authority over laboratory products.
By far the biggest roles of the USDA are promoting animal agriculture and inspecting meat products. Anxious about the threat of competition from cellular agriculture, entities representing conventional animal agriculture, such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, North American Meat Institute and American Meat Science Association, appear to be unanimous in preferring that cellular producers be put under USDA jurisdiction.
Cellular producers for the most part appear to prefer FDA regulation.
FDA asserts authority
FDA health and safety standards are generally considered much stricter than those enforced at slaughterhouses and on farms by the USDA. But cellular producers tend to mistrust the prospect of being inspected and regulated by an inspection apparatus developed to serve the conventional meat, milk, and egg industries.
Reported Kelly Servick for the New York Times science section on July 13, 2018, “The Food & Drug Administration, in a daylong discussion of safety considerations, asserted jurisdiction over products made of chicken, beef, pork, and seafood cells grown in a culture medium.”
Seeks “input, data, information”
The meeting on “Foods Produced Using Animal Cell Culture Technology,” as the FDA called it, was convened, according to the FDA meeting announcement, to seek “input, data, and information on the following questions:
- What considerations specific to animal cell culture technology would be appropriate to include in evaluation of food produced by this method of manufacture?
- What kinds of variations in manufacturing methods would be relevant to safety for foods produced by animal cell culture technology?
- What kinds of substances would be used in the manufacture of foods produced using animal cell culture technology and what considerations would be appropriate in evaluating the safety of these uses?
- Are the potential hazards associated with production of foods using animal cell culture technology different from those associated with traditional food production/processing? Is there a need for unique control measures to address potential hazards associated with production of foods using animal cell culture technology?”
The FDA “already has oversight over food products that include extracts of the algae spirulina and a fermented fungus used in a line of meat substitutes known as Quorn,” Servick noted.
However, the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service has jurisdiction, Servick wrote, “over meat, poultry, processed egg products such as cartons of pourable eggs, and catfish. And although cultured meat production facilities may look very different from livestock feedlots and slaughterhouses, some argue that their status as meat producing facilities puts them firmly under USDA’s control.”
“Will not look like a slaughterhouse”
Responded Peter Licari, chief technology officer at the San Francisco-based vegan food company JUST, “A clean meat facility will be similar to what the FDA sees every day in both biologics and food processing plants. It will not look like a slaughterhouse.”
JUST, originally called Hampton Creek, is perhaps best known as maker of Just Mayo and Just Cookies, among other established products. But JUST founder Josh Tetrick announced in August 2017 that the company could introduce a cell-cultured meat product by August 2018.
While meeting that goal now seems unlikely, JUST is believed to be among the leading contenders to put the first cell-cultured food products on the market.
At the FDA meeting, Servick said, “experts walked through the basic manufacturing process for cultured meat products—and the steps that will require particular attention to safety.”
Risk of contamination
North Carolina State University College of Agriculture & Life Science cell culturing expert Paul Mozdziak explained to the FDA meeting, Servick said, that many cellular agriculture producers “will isolate cells from a tissue biopsy of a living animal to establish cell banks—vials of starting material that can be thawed and multiplied in batches.
“Bacteria or viruses could sneak into the initial tissue sample, or into the cultured cells as they’re transferred to successively larger quantities of culture medium, or when medium is added to prompt them to grow.
“Large-scale bioreactors must be carefully sanitized. The materials used in cellular scaffolds—structures that support the muscle cells as they grow—must also be evaluated for safety.”
While all of this is true, the FDA notes that the U.S. already suffers “about 48 million cases of foodborne illness annually—the equivalent of sickening 1 in 6 Americans each year. And each year these illnesses,” mostly associated with conventional animal agriculture, slaughter, animal product and byproduct preparation, and animal product and byproduct packaging, “result in an estimated 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.”
Said FDA Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition director Susan Mayne, “These are early days, but make no mistake that FDA has been preparing for this for quite some time.”
That leaves the question of what the products that the FDA expects to regulate will be called.
Among the many issues that the U.S. House of Representatives deferred for later consideration in rejecting the first edition of the 2018 Farm Bill in May 2018 was a single-sentence amendment which would both have put the USDA in charge of regulating cellular agriculture, and enjoined cellular producers from using such terms as “clean meat.”