One method still on the cusp of commercialization is “cultured” or “lab-grown” meat. In this type of system, actual animal cells are raised on a growth medium in an artificial environment in which they can be protected from contamination. These are usually muscle cells because that is what meat is made of, but fat cells can also be included in some way. While the use of cells can certainly create something resembling traditional meat, there remains the problem of the complex 3D properties of the target products that cannot be replicated by just a batch of cells. A lab-grown beef or salmon filet or (we hope one day) a bacon steak would require a more complex cell organization. Currently, the only lab-grown or cell-grown meat on the market is the chicken nugget product Approved for sale in Singapore. The regulatory process for this technology is still developing in other countries including the United States.
There is a company that has developed what they hope will become an enabling technology for different types of cultured meat products in the future. It was incorporated in 2019 and secured seed-stage funding in late 2020. Its co-founder, Eric Jenkoski, has 30 years of experience with national defense companies. He sees alternative meats as partners with the traditional animal industry because, as he says, “the problem pie is big enough to have a slice for everyone.” The Company’s name Matrix Ft For “food technologies” is not a film A reference, but a literal description of what they offer on a nanoscale. They are making 3D nanofiber scaffolds and microcarriers that can regulate the way animal cells will grow. In something like an animal muscle, there are natural “extracellular matrices” that perform this function, but in this case, Matrix FT makes these tiny scaffolds out of plant-based components using an “electro-spinning” and “electro-spraying” process.
They can also include growth factors and other signaling molecules in the matrix that will influence how cultured cells grow and differentiate so that they can mimic specific meat characteristics. Components of the matrix can be consumed by growing cells by the time the process is over, or they can remain to provide structure because they are vegetative and edible. On the one hand, it may seem strange to highlight the fact that they use plant materials to grow animal cells, but this means that no animal ingredients should be used to generate food beyond the original cells collected through tissue biopsy. . It remains to be seen if vegans will be interested in cell culture meat, but the target market is much broader than that.
Follow the latest news and policy discussions about sustainable agriculture, biomedicine, and other “disruptive” innovations. Subscribe to our newsletter.
Details of how the Nano Array will be allocated to each potential partner must be specified under material transfer agreements with each client company so that the components are protected as a trade secret. Currently 30 cultured cellular players with Matrix FT 100-140 companies work in this pre-commercial space. It’ll be interesting to see how the category evolves, but if it’s successful, Matrix FT technology could potentially work in the background for at least some of the final products.
As mentioned earlier, only Singapore has approved a cell culture meat product, but several products are under review by regulatory authorities in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. Israel may be the next country to agree. In the US, USDA and FDA approvals are needed, and so far there are no known sticking points and the president’s recent executive order on technology support may help. Matrix FT is also in the process of obtaining FDA facility approval.
(A key note on why animal foods remain important even as alternative protein products are introduced: Technically, almost all foods are plant-based because only plants and some algae are capable of converting sunlight into usable energy that’s involved in all possible protein sources—and some of them include animals along the way. And animals greatly enhance the food supply because they are able to thrive on food sources that may be unpalatable or indigestible to humans. And ruminants like cows (with the help of bacteria) also give humans access to a huge amount of plant energy stored in the form of cellulose – something that only serves us as dietary fiber. They can also provide us with meat and dairy products when raised in part or in whole by grazing on lands that may not be suitable for crops that feed people directly.)
Stephen Savage works on topics ranging from biotechnology, to biofuels, to pesticide residue assessments and technologies that reduce food waste. He holds a Ph.D. in plant sciences from the University of California, Davis and works frequently as a consultant. Stephen also stars in the PopAgiculture podcast. Follow Stephen on Twitter @tweet