Test tube beef
Will the beef of the future be grown in the lab? "There is always a fine line between a grand vision and pure hallucination". With these words, Stig Omholt of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (UMB) opened the world's first ever symposium on in vitro meat - or test tube meat.
In vitro meat is artificially made in a laboratory. It is tissue that is similar to meat in taste and consistency, but which does not come from an animal that has been slaughtered.
Activists and scientists
There is growing interest in laboratory meat among environmentally committed scientists. Among the pioneers we find animal rights activists, committed vegetarians and environmentalists standing shoulder to shoulder with chemists, biologists, technologists and mathematicians. They had all gathered at Ås to join together in making the vision into something more than hallucination.
Because let’s say straight away: there is no in vitro meat on the market today. There are not even prototypes to look at and taste. But there is strong commitment – and most of the required technology is already in place.
Waiting for the breakthrough
"Starting off the process of creating fibres is no problem, and fish musculatures have already been created that people have eaten," says Stig Omholt, head of the In Vitro Meat Consortium. But no researchers have yet been able to create a real meat structure from stem cells on a large scale. The researchers are hoping the breakthrough will come soon. "Muscle cells know what they should turn into. The problem is to imitate the system of blood vessels in muscle tissue," explains the professor.
The starting point for in vitro meat is cell structures that are cultivated from stem cells from animals. Stem cells have the ability to produce any type of new cell – in this case muscle cells. This tissue should be able to be used for anything we use meat for today. The cell culture is developed in special incubators, in a mixture otherwise consisting of amino acids and minerals. Here the stem cells should eventually create muscle fibre layer by layer. "When we have the first cell lines, then the steak will no longer come from any living animal that has been killed and slaughtered. We hope to be able to cultivate in vitro minced meat or steak over the course of a few weeks," explains Achim Kohler, who is a senior lecturer at UMB and a researcher at Nofima Mat (formerly Matforsk). He hopes the in vitro concept will lead to many exciting lines of research for the two institutions over the years to come. And not least: That some good food products will result from it that consumers will be demanding in ten years time.
Price and consumer acceptance
In a survey in the Netherlands, 40 per cent answered unreservedly that they would consider eating laboratory meat. "Given the ever increasing focus on animal welfare and environmental effects, I believe understanding for such meat production will increase," says Stig Omholt.
Recent estimates show that it will be possible to produce in vitro meat on a large scale for approximately double what it currently costs to produce chicken in Europe, namely 3,300 to 3,500 euros per tonne. The In Vitro Meat Consortium believes these estimates provide a good basis for continued research.
In the cell lab
Nofima Mat is a member of the In Vitro meat Consortium and is able to offer its extensive competence in meat and quality. A completely new cell lab is now being built up at Nofima Mat for the cultivation of muscle cells. "First and foremost this is to understand meat better. But the techniques can also be used to research into laboratory meat," says senior researcher Kristin Hollung, who heads Nofima Mat’s research into proteins and proteomics.
Stig Omholt of Cigene/UMB (third from right) and Achim Kohler of Nofima Mat/Cigene (third from left) flanked by speakers Jason Matheny (furthest left), Kurt Schmidinger, Henk Haagsman, Klaas Hellingwerf and Robert Dennis.