It’s still in its infancy, but the cultured meat industry could already be in for a shake-up.
Rather than growing meat from a single cell – the technique most companies are using – Israeli start-up Aleph Farms uses the muscle, fat, blood vessels and connective tissue.
Research has shown that 40% of Brits believe lab-grown meat and fish will be on the dinner table in 10 years, with people embracing it due to shortages as well as environmental and sustainability concerns.
But while some Brits may be confident that cultured meat is nearly here, the founder and CEO of Aleph Farms, Didier Toubia, said there are two main challenges.
The first issue is producing enough meat to meet demand while also ensuring the cost is close to parity with conventional meat. The second is the quality and content of the lab-grown produce.
How much money is needed to create it varies by company, but another Israeli business, Future Meat Technologies, recently estimated its costs at around $800 (around £590) per kilo; the goal is to get it down to $5-10 (£3.70-7.40).
Not a burger, but a full steak
Cultured meat is often dubbed ‘clean meat,’ as no animals are harmed in the process, but how is Aleph Farms standing out from the crowd of other start-ups like MosaMeat, Just and Memphis Meats who are also engineering their own proteins?
Using GM- and antibiotic-free start cells from the animal, Toubia said the major difference is that Aleph Farms can grow all four elements of the meat in a three-dimensional way – which has a major impact on mouthfeel and texture.
“Our 3D technology gives us the ability to grow all the cells that make up traditional meat together – the muscle fibres, the fat, the blood vessels and the connective tissue, such as collagen, that binds it. This is our main competitive advantage: our meat grows together like real meat,” he said.
“Other companies grow single cells in suspension or layers in a petri dish, and that means the tissues of other clean-meat companies are not really integrated. Their meat is like a formulated, processed product with separate ingredients.”
The single-cell approach to growing meat also means final use is limited to ground meat, such as beef burger patties, but the Aleph Farm technique could grow a full steak.
While blood vessels are used in the growing process, the meat does not contain any blood as it is grown outside the cow, but Toubia said these play an important role in replicating the structure and texture of the meat.
"Consumers – especially millennials and flexitarians – care about animal welfare and the environment," he explained.
"At the same time, they want to eat juicy, indulgent steak – not just ‘protein.’ Our goal is to help these consumers adhere to their personal standards, while getting to enjoy safe, sustainable meat."
Mimicking conventional meat
It has been a major hurdle to mimic meat's many properties, such as texture, shape, juiciness, and flavour, said Professor Shulamit Levenberg, co-founder and chief scientific officer of Aleph Farms.
"Our use of the four cell types found in conventional cuts of meat, including vascular and connective tissues, is the key to a product that will be closer to the beef that people crave,” he said.
Within two years, Aleph Farms plans to be producing commercial quantities of beef and identifies Europe, the US and Asia as key markets. It’s a little behind other players, with Just aiming to launch at the end of the year and Finless Foods, which is focusing on fish, planning for 2019.
Another Israeli company, Supermeat, is looking into lab-grown chicken, as well as kitchen appliance reactors, so consumers can grow their own meat, but there is no word on launch timing yet.
As for Aleph Farms, it aims to tweak its final products – either marketing or the actual product itself – to win consumer acceptance in each region.
There are no plans to expand beyond beef for now, as the team want to focus on the meat with the highest environmental footprint.
Plus, the company says it’s more challenging to replicate beef than chicken or duck.