For the first time in the roughly five years since a smattering of researchers and companies began talking about making real meat without slaughtering animals, one startup is letting people see how its sausage gets made.
Well, almost. This week the startup, called New Age Meats, let a handful of journalists and potential investors taste its prototype product: a pork sausage made from many of the same ingredients in the kind of breakfast sausage you'd buy at the store, such as pork muscle and fat, spices, sausage, casing, and vegetable stock.
But unlike other breakfast sausages, this meat was made from animal cells, without killing any actual animals.
Creating this kind of meat has been the primary objective of several startups ever since Dutch scientist Mark Post became the first person in the world to make a beef burger from cow cells in 2013. Since then, at least six companies have emerged with the aim of slashing food waste and emissions while reducing animal suffering and improving human health. All of them are working on transforming meat or fish cells into edible flesh.
At a brewery in San Francisco, New Age Meat's team cooked and doled out the first samples of its farm-free (also known as "cell-based" or "cultured") meat. Here's what it was like.
New Age Meats co-founders Brian Spears and Andra Necula served three freshly-cooked pork sausage links made using fat and muscle cells generated from a single sample of a live pig named Jessie (after the street where their headquarters is located in San Francisco).
"We really thought: do we want to invest in another cultured meat startup?" Arvind Gupta, IndieBio's co-founder, told Business Insider. "But after we met the team and saw what they could do, we had to.
"This is the most product and the fastest production from any cultured meat startup we've seen so far," Gupta said.
As Spears, a chemical engineer by training, and Necula, a cell biologist, watched, the sausage sizzled in a pan with a little grapeseed oil. Slowly, it began to brown on each side like conventional sausage. The room filled with the smell of breakfast meat. After a few minutes — just before the sausage casing began to blister — we dug into our bite-sized samples.
It tasted like meat. Then again, it is meat.
The texture was distinctly sausage-like. After I'd chewed my bite, I wasn't sure I would have been able to tell the difference between this pork sausage and any other. Perhaps it was a little drier, a little more crumbly? It was hard to tell from just one bite, but I was pretty sure there were no glaring differences.
Despite their hard work, Spears and Necula face a long road ahead. Meat made in labs is coming, as most of the startups in the space continue to promise, but getting the products out of the lab and into restaurants will take time.
Back in 2013, when Post became the first person in the world to make a beef burger from cow cells, the patty cost $330,000 (now about R4.8 million) to produce. Getting that down to a price consumers would be willing to pay at a restaurant is still at least 5 to 10 years away, according to several CEOs of the leading companies in the space.
Part of the cost problem has to do with the food these startups are feeding their farm-free animal cells. Many companies still use something called fetal bovine serum (FBS), a standard and relatively inexpensive lab medium made from the blood of pregnant slaughtered cows. To live up to their goal of replacing animal slaughter, these startups will need to find something new and slaughter-free that costs the same or less.
New Age Meats' sausages were made using FBS, but Spears told Business Insider he and Necula were working on going serum-free within the next couple of months.
Another issue is texture.
Making a sausage, patty, fish cake, or any other product that combines several ingredients with ground meat or seafood is nowhere near as difficult as mimicking the complex texture and flavour of a steak or a chicken breast. To do that, startups will likely need to take many of their cues from regenerative medicine, where scientists strive to heal or grow real human tissues and organs. Applying those tools to the world of cultured meat could result in the first farm-free products that chew, slice, and taste like a traditional steak or thigh.
For this reason, Necula said she and Spears planned to continue working in the realm of sausage-like items, but they're exploring options that include products made with beef, pork, and crab.
Several other startups appear to be making headway on their first cultured meat products as well.
The CEO of Just, a Silicon Valley startup formerly known as Hampton Creek, recently tweeted a photo that appeared to show a prototype of its first cultured chicken nuggets; Memphis Meats, the Silicon Valley startup that claimed it made the first lab-grown chicken and duck products in 2017, invited this reporter to a tasting of its products before the year's end.
"We think we'll be ready to go to market in a couple years," Spears said.
Receive a single WhatsApp every morning with all our latest news: click here.
Also from Business Insider South Africa: