Between population growth and growing economic conditions, the global demand for dietary protein is expected to continue to grow for several more decades. There are many good reasons why animal-based meat is likely to remain a critical part of our food supply, but there is a lot of interest in “alternative proteins” – especially in forms that can mimic meat. There has been a lot of investment in this area and some initial commercial success with plant-based options such as Impossible Burgers or Good Catch Seafood. However, there are two major challenges that must be overcome for alternative meats to make a significant contribution to the food supply: they must be affordable and they must provide a dining experience that stimulates consumer enthusiasm. What people look for when they eat meat is a complex “organoleptic experience” involving appearance, taste, aroma and texture/mouthfeel. When imitating something like a hamburger patty or sausage patty, these characteristics can be achieved by combining many processed components, but key characteristics of other meats may not lend themselves to this approach.
One approach that is only now on the cusp of commercialization is known as “cultured” or “lab-grown” meat. In this type of system, actual animal cells are grown on growth media in an artificial environment where they can be protected from contamination. These are usually muscle cells, as meat is made up of them, but fat cells can also be involved in some way. While the use of cells could certainly create something more like conventional meat, there is still the problem of the complex three-dimensional characteristics of the target products that would not be reproduced by a group of cells alone. A lab-grown beef or salmon fillet or (hopefully someday) a piece of bacon will require more complex cell organization. Currently, the only lab-grown or cell-cultured meat on the market is a chicken nuggets product that is approved for sale in Singapore. The regulatory process for this technology is still evolving in other countries, including the US.
There is a company that has developed what they hope will become an enabling technology for many different types of cultured meat products in the future. It was founded in 2019 and received Series C funding in late 2020. Its co-founder, Eric Jenkuski, has 30 years of experience with national defense companies. He sees alternative meats as partners with the traditional animal industry because, as he says, “the problem pie is big enough that everyone has a piece.” The company name, Matrix FT for “Food Technology” is not a reference to a movie, but a literal description of what they provide at the nanoscale. They make three-dimensional nanofibrous scaffolds and microcarriers that can orchestrate how animal cells will grow. In something like animal muscle, there are natural “extracellular matrices” that perform this function, but in this case Matrix FT makes these micro-skeletons from plant-derived components using an “electro-spinning” and “electro-spraying” process.
They can also embed growth factors and other signaling molecules into the matrix that will influence how the cultured cells grow and differentiate so that they can mimic specific properties of meat. The components of the matrix can be consumed by the growing cells until the process is complete, or they can remain to provide structure because they are plant-based and edible. On the one hand, it may seem strange to point out the fact that they are using plant materials to grow animal cells, but this means that no animal ingredients should be used to generate food outside of the original cells that are harvested by tissue biopsy . Whether vegans will be interested in cell culture meat remains to be seen, but the target market is much wider than that.
The details of how the nano-matrix is customized for each potential partner must be worked out under material transfer agreements with each client company so that the trade secret components are protected. Currently, 30 cultured cell players are working with Matrix FT from 100-140 companies in this pre-commercial space. It will be interesting to see how the category develops, but if it succeeds, it’s likely that Matrix FT technology will function in the background for at least some of the top products.
As previously stated, only Singapore has yet to approve a cell culture meat product, but several products are under review by regulators in the US, Europe and elsewhere. Israel could be the next country to approve. Both USDA and FDA approvals are required in the US and there are currently no known obstacles, and the President’s recent executive order on technology support may help. Matrix FT is also in the process of receiving FDA approval.
(A primer on why animal-based foods will continue to be important even as alternative protein products are introduced. Technically, almost all food is plant-based because only plants and some algae are able to convert sunlight into usable energy, which is included in all potential protein sources—some of which include animals along the way. And animals greatly increase the food supply because they are able to thrive on food sources that would be unpalatable or indigestible to humans. Ruminants like cows also (with the help of bacteria) give humans access to the vast amount of plant energy stored as cellulose—something that serves us only as dietary fiber. They can also provide us with meat and dairy products when grown partly or entirely by grazing land that may not be suitable for crops that directly feed humans)