WASHINGTON, June 14, 2017 - Call it cultured meat. In vitro meat. Clean meat. Or cellular meat and seafood.      

Call it what you wish, but researchers in the U.S. and abroad are mimicking the process that medical laboratories have employed for years to generate human skin or other tissue, intent on using it to produce and market edible, affordable cultured meat and seafood. They are moving quickly beyond experiments in cute little petri dishes and in the direction of huge tanks – like beer fermenting vats – to produce what will be, technically, what you find in today’s meat counters.

Muscle cells and fat cells can be readily cultured, “and you can culture them all from stem cells and then make a complete product,” said Mark Post, physiology professor at Maastricht University in the Netherlands who is at the scientific forefront for cultured meat. In a recorded panel discussion on the topic, he said: “It’s all medical technology. If you extend it a little bit, you can also make whole slabs of meat . . . in theory, it is possible.”

But, he said, “The most difficult thing to create is the exact structure. What we are trying to do is create a product that satisfies the craving of most people for meat. That means you have to recreate the entire tissue . . . not only the flavor, the color, but also the mouth feel. In the end, it is going to be the same tissue that the animal is making.”

San Francisco-based Memphis Meats, an American front runner in cultured meat, produced its first laboratory samples of edible beef (meatballs) in February 2016, and a frying and tasting session followed. You can see a video on how the meatballs smelled and tasted online here. Its videoed cooking and sampling of chicken and duck followed in March 2017 (click here to see the video), where an invited taster tries a bite and exclaims, “It tastes like chicken, yes! This is some of the best fried chicken I’ve had.”

Production costs for the first sample pencil out at thousands of dollars per pound. “’We’re still in the development phase,” explained David Kay, Memphis Meats’ head of mission. “We expect to be [in the] market by about 2021, at which point the products will probably be at a slight price premium.” His company’s goal is “to have meat that is accessible for everyone.”

 Aside from the tremendous cost disadvantage at this stage, advocates trumpet advantages of cultured meats. Much of fish and meat animals are discarded in processing, while the entire cultured meat products are consumed, so such products are more environmentally efficient. Memphis meats projects, for example, that their products will generate just 10 percent of the greenhouse gases created by conventional meat production, on a per pound basis. Plus, most of the contamination in conventional meats occur in slaughter, Kay says, and cultured meat proponents call their upcoming products “clean meat” because they’ll be free of pathogens, antibiotic residues and other contaminants.

Also based in San Francisco, Finless Foods, meanwhile, is working toward production of blue fin tuna. Co-founder Michael Selden told Agri-Pulse he hopes his company can sell its first tuna meat in three years if regulatory hurdles can be cleared, and he thinks the first product will be something like surimi (imitation crab sticks). Fish fillets or steaks “will require a lot of complex research into fish muscle structure,” he said, and will come years later.

The greatest challenge is an effective, affordable medium to culture the products – even before finding the right muscle genetics to culture fish, Selden said. Currently, “we’re using what everyone else is using, which is different types of serum; different types of animal blood . . . horse, chicken, cow, fish . . . that is spun down to the absolute concentrated version.”

Blood has long been medical research’s tissue culture medium, he said, but using it for commercial fish production would be “completely unsustainable,” plus animals are slaughtered to provide the medium, which is counter to the idea of moving away from slaughter. Seldon views aquaculture as efficient fish production and farmed fish as usually safe and unadulterated. In fact, he said, the idea of competing economically with farmed fish is a reason he is trying to culture salt water fish instead.

Finless Foods will one day have to produce fish economically, he said, and “right now, I wouldn’t even call us comparable. I would just call us much, much worse.”

Cultured meat and fish makers are headed for an apparently uncertain regulatory path through the Food and Drug Administration and/or perhaps USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), which inspects red meats and poultry. Selden said he has already contacted the FDA and expects “a full regulatory process,” especially since his products will be “very tech oriented.”

Asked by Agri-Pulse about the regulatory requirements for new cultured meat and fish items, FSIS suggested in a written statement they may fall under FDA, which has jurisdiction over plant-based meat alternatives and substitutes, but noted that the agency “has not made any determinations on ‘cultured meat.’”

The FDA, meanwhile, declined to say anything about what regulatory hurdles the cultured products might face, but did advise Agri-Pulse: “The FDA is following the developments in this area and, as always, our staff are willing to engage with firms on the relevant safety and legal requirements . . .”

Conventional livestock groups are not hopping into public discourse on cultured meat’s economic feasibility, nutritional profile, food safety pros and cons, environmental benefits or potential consumer demand. Invited to comment on the experimental meat and fish products, Keith Williams, vice president of the National Turkey Federation, said, “We are focused on the raising of animals for food – not on the marketing or promotion of alternate forms of food.” The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and other groups declined similarly, and Tom Super, National Chicken Council’s communications vice president, added, “Our member companies produce real chicken.”