Take a moment to imagine what our dinnertime futures may look like.
The year is 2023 and it’s mealtime and you want something comforting. So first you start with a vegetable-based soup made with a cultivated stock – you added one gram of lab-grown meat seasoning material to a litre of water to form the base and then load up the dish with your favourite vegetables.
Next is the main, a homemade surf and turf with a difference. It’s made of slaughter-free steak, produced from cell culture, and it’s topped with a hypoallergenic cultivated prawn, grown by a scientist in a lab.
The material is then subjected to a number of biological steps to ensure it has the same nutritional features, look, texture and most importantly, flavour characteristics as real animal meat.
Food and health expert from The School of Chemical Engineering at UNSW, Professor Johannes le Coutre, believes this dinnertime picture will soon be realised, as the global cultivated meats industry continues to progress.
He explains that the process of creating cultivated meat involves taking cells through a small biopsy from a live animal. The material is then subjected to several biological steps to ensure it has the same nutritional features, look, texture and most importantly, flavour characteristics as real animal meat.
“Cellular agriculture is a growing field of activities geared toward the production of food that is deeply rooted in existing technologies,” le Coutre tells SBS. “[This field] enables us to provide real meat – without having to kill an animal.”
Predictions of a cultured meat future
The concept of cultivated meats (also called slaughter-free, cultured or lab-grown meat) has been around for a short while.
In 2013, a Dutch researcher unveiled the world’s first ‘cultured meat’ burger. Grown in a laboratory at Maastricht University, the single beef patty took several years and around AU$400,000 to produce.
Professor le Coutre says scientists and producers are now working to produce these innovative foods at an affordable price. “I think we will see the first cultivated meat product available for consumers on supermarket shelves, after two years from now.”
He predicts that once commercial viability is established and regulatory demands are met, cultivated meats will first gain popularity as niche products like cultivated meat seasoning or stock. More common household food items like cultivated mince or pork chop products will follow, along with seafood and dairy alternatives.
“Our goal is to commercialise what we’re achieving through research and development and to see products dominate supermarket shelves within the coming five-to-ten years.”
Look to Singapore for cultured chicken nuggets
Although cultivated meats are not available for sale yet in Australia, they have been sold in Singapore. Late last year, Singaporean authorities gave regulatory approval for the world’s first ‘clean meat’ to be sold for human consumption.
Approval was provided to the Californian food start up, Eat Just, for the company to sell cultivated chicken meat nationwide in the form of nuggets, under the Good Meat brand. The chicken nugget was trialled in December 2020 at the Singapore restaurant 1880 – a private members’ club – for around AU$23. The cultivated meat was served as a two-dish combination: chicken and waffles beside the lab-grown chicken on a Chinese steamed bun.
Channel News Asia reports the company’s cultivated chicken products will be sold at other food venues throughout Singapore this year, and in retail stores by late 2022.
Nutrition and lab-grown food
While it’s interesting to see progress in the field of cellular agriculture, is there really any point to creating a new kind of lab-grown food?
One argument for cellular meats suggests that its existence will help increase the global food supply and ensure the world’s growing population will have enough to eat in the future. As the food is created in a lab, a steady supply of cultivated meats is also expected to remain somewhat protected from droughts, floods and insect infestations.
“What we are trying to do here with cultivated meats is just to expand the portfolio of food products that will be available in the future,” le Coutre says.
“In principle, you can provide very personalised cultivated meats to consumers. For example, you can control the nutrient value of the food."
He adds that cultivated meats offer significant nutritional benefits. “In principle, you can provide very personalised cultivated meats to consumers. For example, you can control the nutrient value of the food. That’s the beauty of it, and the opportunities are big.”
There's the potential for seafood to be made hypoallergenic. Lab-based meat, created in sterile conditions, could also promise to provide good nutrients without unhealthy inclusions. Food made in a lab – rather than on a factory farm in countries with varying agricultural health standards – could lower the risk of a virus outbreak.
“Having control and knowing what is contained in cultivated meat also has the potential to offer various advantages over traditional meat materials derived from factory farming.”
When it's made available in Australia, will you eat it?
Meat and Livestock Australia has reportedly commented that although it’s still early days, lab-grown meat could detract some market share from traditional meat production systems. It’s feared that lab-grown meat may negatively affect farmers. The taste of cultivated meat products may also not live up to the flavour of the ‘real thing’.
Not every generation will be keen on the meat alternative either. Research by the University of Sydney and Curtin University, published in Frontiers in Nutrition in 2020, found that 72 percent of Generation Z were not ready to accept cultured (cultivated or slaughter-free meat), even though they were concerned about environmental and animal welfare. They viewed the lab-grown meat with disgust.
“On top of that it even might offer nutritional benefits. After all, it’s real meat.”
Professor le Coutre, who edited the published journal article, expects that although some groups of people aren’t big fans of cultivated meats now, in time they may change their minds. He believes consumers will be more likely to accept the idea of eating meat if they know exactly what’s in it.
“The way I see it, there will always be traditional steaks – beautiful, marbled Wagyu cuts available – and they should be available at a cost reflecting their environmental footprint. But, in the future, if you go to a fast food restaurant and the cultivated meats they are selling have the same taste, texture and aroma as traditional meat, and if it comes with price parity or costs less, then there will be demand.
“On top of that, it even might offer nutritional benefits. After all, it’s real meat.”