A decade later, AgFunderNews caught up with Dr. Post, cofounder and chief scientific officer at Mosa Meat in the Netherlands, to talk about what progress there has been in the nascent cell cultured meat space since then.
- Are there still serious questions about the commercial viability of producing meat outside an animal at scale with current technologies?
- What will bring down the cost of cell culture media?
- Defining ‘meat.’
- Bioreactor size: Is there a sweet spot?
- What are the biggest technical barriers facing the industry?
- Why hasn’t anyone submitted a dossier to the EU?
- Sustainability and cultivated meat: How much do we really know at this stage?
- Funding: Does the cultivated meat industry need government funding to get off the ground?
- What is the attraction of cultivated meat for the consumer?
On viability: “Is this a big endeavor with some level of uncertainty? Absolutely. Is it so unrealistic that you shouldn’t even try? Absolutely not.”
Does this industry need government funding to get off the ground? “If you had asked me this question a year and a half ago, I would have said no. Now the situation has somewhat changed and when I look at the discussions about energy transition and other major changes in industry, where they’re really looking at governments for support, I’m starting to think that we probably would require something like that as well.”
Are you concerned that companies are going to run out of money before this technology has a chance to prove itself? “Not really, and the reason why I’m not concerned is because we see a lot of involvement of large meat companies like Cargill and Tyson and JBS. When small startups with interesting technology cannot quite make it, we will see that at some point they are acquired by large companies. I don’t think the large meat companies can afford to let this dwindle and die, but for sure, there is an interesting and stressful period ahead.”
Consumer messaging: “The messaging really should be that we are replacing meat with meat, because we grow up with the idea that meat is a wholesome part of our diet. Actually the evidence is in the opposite direction, but that doesn’t really matter. If the public has this idea, then it will be difficult to transition them to a plant-based diet because they feel that it’s incomplete. One of the things that has been under-emphasized I think, is the underlying notion that a lot of people still have, wrong or right, that we need meat in our diet.”
Investment: “I would really like to see investment in setting up factory systems, setting up factory lines and working on scale up, as some of the equipment is not really tailored for this particular process. If you’re just growing undifferentiated cells, not so much, but if you make tissues, you need specialized equipment to move from cell production to tissue production. This is true for the stuff we’re doing, but it’s even more so if you want to make a full thickness product [like a steak].”
Costs: “This has been somewhat debated, but let’s say it’s 50% consumables, 50% ingredients, 25% labor, and 25% building and bioreactors. If you increase cell density, you reduce the component of the bioreactors because you use them more efficiently, but it’s only 25% of the cost. If you reduce the amount of medium that you need for [a fixed amount of] consumables to make that kilo of meat, that’s where you have the big gain. And this happens through for instance, continuous processing, or feeding strategies… medium recycling perhaps, and getting cheaper and cheaper ingredients in the medium, so getting the cost down from what was originally €200/liter to eventually something like 20 cents probably. The ridiculous prices that we had in the beginning have come down tremendously.”
Tech breakthroughs: “There’s a company called ProFuse Technology in Israel that has developed a cocktail of small molecules that make the differentiation process for muscle a lot more efficient, and we have a similar thing for fat cells. And so there are some developments there and they’re actually major, where we go from 50% of our cells differentiating into muscle to 95%. And we’re seeing the same with fat cells.”
Growth factors: “If you have a product from [genetically engineered] barley that doesn’t require the same amount of purification as the product that comes out of bacteria, then maybe barley eventually will be a winner [as an expression system for recombinant proteins]. I’m not an expert in this, but it could be that expression systems that are more food-compatible than bacteria or yeast eventually win this game.”
What is meat? “Meat is a good source of heme iron, and if you don’t differentiate your cells [trigger stem cells to turn into muscle cells], you don’t get heme. For the muscle proteins, we’re looking at a specific amino acid composition and a complete amino acid profile. If you just make cells which let’s say make collagen… then you make essentially a very different tissue that seems to be meat, but from an amino acid profile point of view, it’s completely different.
“We feel for nutritional value… we have to make tissues that are as close to the original as possible. Fat cells… are not really dependent on each other that much to form a tissue. But muscle cells need to merge into a fiber and they need to have anchor points, so when they start to contract, they have a tension. That drives the production of muscle proteins. So to try and create that in some sort of amorphous tissue, and give differentiation signals but not [create] the environment [in which cells can] differentiate, will just not be sufficient.
“We put our muscle cells in [alginate] gel that is 99% water. If cells are swimming in water, they cannot find each other, but they can interact with the gel structure, find each other, start to merge, and start to align if you put them in the right configuration. And when they start to align and contract, that’s where, if they have the anchor points, they start to produce the muscle proteins.
“The gel is part of the final product but it’s a very minute part because it’s 99% water. That water is squeezed out and you are left with little threads of alginate in between the muscle fibers.”
Are cultivated steaks ready for prime time? “Not yet. I think there are two distinctive technologies. One is to make small pieces and glue them together with transglutaminase… That obviously is doable, but it’s not desirable. The other, to construct let’s say a ribeye steak, where you have fat and muscle and texture and a channel and perfusion system to keep everything alive … that technology is not ready yet at a cost-effective level.”
How meaty are hybrid products? “We make a distinction between muscle and fat because we grow them separately, so we are looking at how much muscle and fat do we actually need to incorporate into the product? For fat it’s very little. We find that a very small percentage, actually much smaller than you typically find in a hamburger, is enough to turn a run of the mill plant-based hamburger into an animal plant based hamburger if you like!
“For muscle it’s a little bit different because that adds less to the taste and less to the cooking behavior and more to the nutrition and texture. We have started with small contributions, but for sure you’re going to need more than fat.
“We are thinking about [launching with] a hybrid product, as is everybody, because of the [lack of] initial production capacity and to get to some level of price effectiveness. But gradually we will be diluting the amount of plant-based protein in that hamburger.”
Bioreactor size: “We don’t know what that sweet spot is yet. But if you operate a 50,000-liter bioreactor, it takes as much labor as if you operate a 10,000-liter bioreactor, so it’s quite clear that there are economies of scale. However, large bioreactors, if they get infected [contaminated], you run a big risk [of losing a large amount of inventory]. We’re starting with 1,000-liter reactors in our scale-up plant in Maastricht, but this is not our end game.”
EU regulations: “You feel some frustration that nobody has quite yet [submitted a cultivated meat dossier in] the EU, and that’s of course because the EU has this political forum where it takes an extra nine months to get regulatory approval over all the other geographies. And with that nine months and with 27 Member States having to say something about it, it becomes more uncertain.
“It’s possible to have conversations with the scientific committee of EFSA [before submitting a dossier]. It’s not possible to have them with the panels. However, on the flip side, their documentation of what is required is far more detailed than in any other jurisdiction.
“We are a European company and we are set to get regulatory approval in the EU sooner rather than later. But like other companies, we are banking on the speed of Singapore and perhaps the speed of the US [for initial market entry].”
Sustainability: “We have seen lifecycle analyses for the last 10 years, but they’re all preliminary because you can only physically do this if you have a production system in place and supply chain and transport and so forth, so there are a lot of assumptions. But the value of the studies is that we can figure out which levers to pull to make a sustainability impact. The benefits are clear, I think, in terms of land use and water use, but on energy, the jury is still out.
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