lab-grown 'real' meat

Japanese researcher pushes the boundaries of lab-grown ‘real’ meat

Last November, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration followed suit by giving safety clearance to lab-grown meat for the first time.

Shoji Takeuchi carefully touches a thin, reddish-brown piece of beef on a round black plate. The chunk of meat, measuring about 1 cubic centimeter, stretches as he moves it around the plate with chopsticks.

“It didn’t taste like beef, though it had umami and was chewy,” Takeuchi, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s graduate school of information science and technology, said of the impression he got when he tasted the meat last March for the first time. The piece in question, however, is not just any bit of beef. It’s lab-grown meat that Takeuchi and his team of researchers put years of effort into making.

The team’s work could be the future of our diet.

Researchers and food manufacturers around the world are racing to develop and market animal-free meat from cultured cells. In December 2020, Singapore became the world’s first country to approve the sales of lab-grown meat, by greenlighting a plan by San Francisco-based Eat Just to market its cultured chicken in the city-state. Then, last November, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration followed suit by giving safety clearance to lab-grown meat for the first time.

In Japan, however, numerous hurdles will need to be overcome before cultured meat becomes commercially available, with experts citing not only technological but also legal and social barriers.

The concept of growing meat in a lab is not new. Winston Churchill famously floated the idea as early as 1931 in a speech titled “Fifty Years Hence.”

“We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium,” he said.

But it was in the last decade or so that reality caught up with the idea. Interest in alternatives to livestock farming has picked up in recent years for a variety of reasons, for which cell-based meat is seen as a potential solution.

First, there is the question of whether the livestock meat industry can keep up with the rising demand for meat worldwide, with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) projecting the growth of meat consumption globally to 470 million tons per year by 2050, up by over 100 million tons from the current level. Most of the increase will come from the growth in the world’s population and rising living standards of people in developing countries.

Secondly, the environmental impact of livestock farming is becoming a serious issue, with 14.5% of greenhouse gases coming from livestock, according to another FAO report released in 2013.

Animal meat production also carries the risks of bird flu and swine flu, which, once there’s an outbreak in a farm, requires mass culling of livestock, while over-reliance on antibiotics for disease prevention can increase risks of antibiotic resistance.

And lastly, livestock farming has animal welfare issues, which can be aggravated by the massive amounts of food waste it produces.

Against such a background, along with plant-based meat that mimics the taste and appearance of real meat, cultured meat has attracted the interest of many consumers as well as investors. U.S. consultancy AT Kerney estimates that, by 2040, cultured meat will make up 35% of the $1.8 trillion global meat market, accounting for some $630 billion (¥81 trillion). The share of conventional meat consumption is estimated to be 40% of total meat consumption, down from 90% in 2025, and that of plant-based meat replacements rising to 25% from 10%.

Takeuchi says a turning point came in 2013, when Dutch pharmacologist Mark Post presented a proof of concept for cultured meat with his lab-grown beefburger. Inspired by Post’s research, Takeuchi invited him to Japan and hosted a symposium on cell-based meat the following year.

Difference between a burger and a steak

But for Takeuchi, who has specialized in tissue engineering, his research is unique in that he is trying to develop “real” meat by re-creating not only the look from the outside but also from the inside. That involves reconstructing actual muscle tissue.

“Most startup companies are thinking of ways to commercialize lab-grown meat quickly,” he said, noting that such meat typically takes the form of chicken nuggets or hamburgers.

“What we are trying to create, on the other hand, is a beefsteak, a chunk of beef, where muscle fibers are neatly aligned in parallel position. They can twitch like real muscles when stimulated by electricity. Few people in the world are thinking of creating such meat.”

Through joint research with Nissin Foods Holdings, one of Japan’s leading food companies, Takeuchi’s group has succeeded in creating a three-dimensional beef chunk of about 1 cubic centimeter by stacking 40 sheets of gel containing myoblasts, or cells that can grow into muscle cells, and culturing it for about a week. The goal is to enlarge the beef using the same structure to develop a 100-gram steak by 2025, he said.

Psychological concern

But are consumers ready for all this? According to a 2021 survey of 4,000 adults conducted online by Takeuchi, Nissin Food Group and Aiko Hibino, a professor at Hirosaki University, 32% of the respondents expressed some interest in trying cultured meat, while another 34% said they had no or little interest.

The results are in stark contrast to those seen in overseas surveys, in which a majority of respondents show interest in trying lab-grown meat, Hibino writes in a booklet, “Baiyоniku to wa Nanika?” (“What is cultured meat?”), co-authored with Takeuchi and published In December.

But nearly half the respondents in the survey answered in the affirmative when they were asked if cultured meat could help solve the world’s food crisis. “In Japan, people are guarded about the idea of eating cultured meat themselves, but they are not opposed to the concept,” Hibino wrote.

Younger generations around the world seem more positive about cultural meat, a trend also backed up by the Japanese survey, Hibino stated, noting that it may have to do with the fact that people in their early 20s are generally more aware of — and concerned about — environmental issues.