“This isn’t just like meat, it is meat – 100% delicious meat, identical on every level, but without any of the drawbacks,” said one of the startup’s founders.
Raising livestock for meat is one of the worst things you can do for the environment, but while you might convince people to switch to an electric car or cut their energy expenditure, forgoing meat is where even some of the most climate-aware people draw the line. For many people, the meat just tastes good and is hard to replace. But there’s a silver lining: technology is now allowing us to create synthetic products that look and taste a lot like farmed meat, without hurting animals or the environment.
Mutable, a Dutch biotech company, wants you to have your meat cake and eat it too. Founded in 2018, the startup has just showcased its first product, a lab-grown pork sausage that cooks and looks a lot like the animal-derived sausages it mimics.
Lab-grown meat shouldn’t be confused with plant-based ‘fake’ meat products, such as the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger, which pack plant proteins that mimic meat. Lab-grown meat is actually real animal flesh — it just so happens to be grown in a lab, rather than a factory farm.
Scientists can harvest stem cells from a cow or some other living animal and cultivate the sample with amino acids and carbohydrates to grow outside of the animal’s body, shaping the fully formed sample into cuts of meat, such as fish fillets, hamburgers, and bacon.
The first lab-made hamburger was created in 2012 by researchers led by Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University, and it cost a whopping $325,000 to produce. Ever since then, a number of biotech startups joined the fray, racing to be among the first to produce a cheap alternative to animal meat. In Singapore, the only place that has currently regulated lab-grown meat, a serving of chicken nuggets goes for $23 — still expensive, but the trend is moving towards price parity. Some companies claim to be able to produce a patty for $10 or even lower, at a fraction of the environmental cost of “traditional” meat.
The Delft-based Meatable is part of this fray. After securing nearly $60 million over two rounds of funding, the startup has now revealed footage of its showcase product, showing how the pork-mimicking sausage looks like in the frying pan. Previously, Meatable only showed the raw, uncooked version of the product.
Lab-grown meat is usually made using fetal bovine serum (FBS), harvested from cattle fetuses. Meatable, however, uses opti-ox technology, based on a single cell from the umbilical cord of animals, thereby ensuring no harm whatsoever is done to the animal. It takes only a few weeks to grow Meatable’s sausages.
Farmed meat is responsible for generating 14% of the world’s global emissions that cause climate change. There is thus a very strong incentive to provide a working alternative, which is where cultured meat comes in. However, there’s still a long way to go as a constellation of factors has to perfectly line up in order to usher in this major shift in the industry’s status quo.
The technology needs to deliver products that not only look, smell, and taste like meat from a farmed animal, but are also cheap or at least financially attainable by the average consumer. There are also regulatory hurdles that need to be passed.
Right now, it is illegal to sell lab-grown meat virtually everywhere in the world. Singapore is the only market where it is legal to sell such products, but things may change soon. In the US, many expect the FDA to grant approval for lab-grown meat in 2022 or 2023 at the latest. In the Netherlands, the Dutch House of Representatives passed a rule in March that allows people to taste cultured meat in a controlled setting. This provides a foothold for new laws that would allow lab-grown meat to hit supermarket shelves. Meatable expects to sell its first products to consumers in 2025, if not sooner.