What is “Clean Meat”?


The current production of animal products subjects billions upon billions of thinking, feeling animals to live in extreme confinement, where they experience serious trauma, mutilation, and painful slaughter. If there was a way to create meat which looked, tasted and cooked just like the “real thing” and came from a live animal who didn’t need to be exposed to cruel keeping systems or slaughter, would the public be open to it?

What should the product be named?

There are currently a handful of start-ups that are focusing on just that; creating meat that doesn’t require animals to suffer or die. Cultured meat, lab-grown meat or what many refer to as “clean meat” is a groundbreaking technology that is set to revolutionize the global food system.

According to the Good Food Institute, “clean meat is a term for real meat grown without animal slaughter. The word is similar to ‘clean energy’ in that it immediately communicates important aspects of the technology used—both the environmental benefits and the decrease in food-borne pathogens and drug residues. The term clean is meant to refer to the fact that animals don’t need to die or suffer for the meat. It’s also no more accurate to say that clean meat is ‘lab grown’ than it is to say that Cheerios and commercial peanut butter are ‘lab created.’ All processed foods start in a food laboratory, of course, but with clean meat, the end result is real, pure meat.”

One such start-up is a Dutch company called Mosa Meat, co-founded by Dr. Mark Post, a researcher at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands. Dr. Post, who is known as the “father of cultured meat” was the first to bring clean meat to the public’s attention when he presented about it in London in 2013. His three main motivations for developing clean meat are food security, the environment and animal welfare.

Animals like this sow and her piglets suffer immensely when they are farmed for their meat. Is clean meat a solution? Image credit Kim Bartlett – Animal People, Inc.

FOUR PAWS refers to lab created meat as clean meat. However, there is no set term which is standard among the start-ups creating it and the general public. Studies are being carried out to determine the most popular and favored term among various sectors.

“Feeding 2 billion more mouths by 2050 and accommodating the growing meat demand will put more pressure on crop-for-feed growing as well as breeding and raising livestock. Cattle are major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, which could be eliminated. In relation to animal welfare, by decimating the livestock population we would be slaughtering far fewer animals and could keep the remaining ones under highly humane conditions.”

Dr. Mark Post, inventor of clean meat technology

What exactly is clean meat?

Rather than obtaining meat from animals raised on environmentally destructive factory farms, where they are treated as commodities instead of sentient beings and are slaughtered in an appalling manner, clean meat is produced by taking a small sample of stem cells, usually from lean muscle. This sample is drawn in a harmless procedure, in the same way that blood is drawn, and the cells are replicated in a culture outside of the animal. After sufficient cells have grown, they are assembled in groups to form small muscle tissues that are very similar to the muscle fibers in a steak. The resulting product is 100 percent real meat.

The binding serum used in this technology was taken from fetal bovines in the past. However, Dr. Post states that this is not necessary anymore: “There are a number of pressuring reasons to eliminate bovine serum. It is inherently unsustainable, and obtaining serum from unborn calves is incompatible with our animal welfare standards and is also a disease risk.” Researchers are now working on optimizing the binding agents with plant-based serums instead.

Clean meat can be made from any animal who has muscle specific stem cells in muscles, which means all the common animals used for food such as mammals, birds and fish. Why is Mosa Meat currently only focusing on beef? “We are focusing on beef because cattle are the least efficient links in food production. Their conversion rate is 15% or lower, meaning that you need to feed cattle 1 kilogram of feed to get 150 grams of muscle out of it. Pigs are twice as efficient and chicken is 4 times as efficient. Fish is the most efficient. For animal welfare reasons, replacing pigs and chickens with cultured meat variants is a very good idea,” says Dr. Post.

High acceptance

With the many problems clean meat could solve, there are still technical, financial and organizational challenges. There are still factors in optimizing the product to where besides the cells, it contains no other animal components. Clean meat start-ups still need more financing, which is quite difficult to get from public funding. But Dr. Post is hopeful, as more and more investors are showing interest.

There is also no fear regarding consumer acceptance of cultured meat: “A number of surveys performed in various European Countries and in the USA indicate that a large minority, ranging from 20-50%, are willing to try cultured meat. We are quite confident that when the product is of high quality and not too expensive, the benefits will appeal to the consumer.” With that in mind, Dr. Post also states that we can expect the first introduction of clean meat most likely in restaurants and specialty stores in about 3-4 years time and another 2-3 years for supermarket introduction.

Featured image: laboratory equipment. Image credit ibbl, CC BY-SA 3.0.

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FOUR PAWS is an international animal welfare organisation committed to encouraging people to treat animals with respect, compassion and understanding. Since 1988, FOUR PAWS has helped wild animals kept in captivity, farm animals and pets as well as strays to the right to live a dignified life in an environment suited to their species. Click to see author's profile.

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