On the road to success with powerful technologies
The market is constantly changing. After Singapore, the USA is the second country in the world where cultured meat may be produced and sold. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has officially approved chicken meat from two California food techs, GoodMeat and Upside Foods. German startup Bluu Seafood has already applied for approval of its cultured fish alternatives in Singapore and now plans to do the same in the US. Israeli startup Aleph Farms, together with Migros in Switzerland, submitted the first application for approval of cultured meat in Europe, and Mosa Meats is allowed to conduct limited tastings under "controlled conditions" in the Netherlands - even before an EU approval.
Marcus Keitzer, elected to the PHW Group's Alternative Proteins Board in 2018, says: "The protein needs of the future will not be met by conventional meat products alone, nor by the plant-based alternatives that currently exist." Continued research into innovative technologies and their suitability for the nutritional mix of the future is essential for the PHW Group, he said. There are pros and cons to both cultured meat and plant-based meat substitutes. Last but not least, he considers the marketing of hybrid products to be promising. Against this background, the PHW Group has been a shareholder of SuperMeat, among others, since 2018.
The technological principle - red and white meat or fish
In principle, the bioprocessing of cultured meat appears relatively simple: By means of biopsy, certain cells are taken from the muscle tissue of animals, which first divide and multiply in Petri dishes, then in bioreactors in suitable cultures. Once a sufficient biomass is reached, the cell mass can be isolated by centrifugation or filtration. Depending on the planned product type, further processing then takes place, including the addition of fat or functional nutrients. The less demanding shaping into mince for burger patties or nuggets still predominates. However, steaks and similar whole cuts of meat are to follow soon.
The goal is for the precursor cells to grow on 3D scaffolds as a kind of matrix, thereby forming targeted muscle fibres or other muscular structures instead of mincemeat-like structures, adds Prof. Dr. Thomas Herget, Head of Global Innovation Fields at Merck. With the goal of eventually working in bioreactors with a volume of over 20,000 l, it also needs the required cell culture media and reagents in sufficient quantities and at an acceptable price. Freedom from animal components is essential. Merck is therefore investigating the extent to which food-grade ingredients such as sugar, salts, amino acids and proteins are suitable as an alternative to the pharmaceutical-grade or high-purity ingredients used to date. Finding the optimal conditions for the bioprocessing design and growth conditions in each case is also proving complex, according to Herget. Merck therefore cooperated with research institutions and other companies, for example to develop automation platforms and biodegradable scaffolds.
Bluu Seafood, for its part, recently announced that it had now adapted the cell lines to free 3D growth in suspension.
The right hardware and software
At the same time, machines and their control systems play a decisive role. GEA has a high level of expertise in the New Food sector and presented a new mobile test centre (MTC) for cultured meat at the last Anuga FoodTec. With this automated but individually configurable process line, farms can cultivate different cell types for up-scaling on a pilot scale. At the centre of the MTC is a multifunctional 500-l bioreactor, usually with a small upstream pre-reactor. Depending on the requirements, there are also systems for mixing, heating or homogenising as well as for washing and separating. Among other things, manufacturers can determine the viability of the cells via the test centre. In the same way, a mass balance can be drawn up in order to work out the conditions for commercial production based on the data.
Tatjana Krampitz, Director Technology R&D for New Food at GEA, emphasises that the seamless integration of the units through sophisticated automation is very important for process planning. "We work at the MTC to achieve the best yield and consequently the greatest process efficiency. That's why we have to follow trends and evaluate processes," Krampitz explains. Furthermore: "When we compare historical data of batches and display it in a clear way in a dynamic diagram, we immediately achieve the necessary clarity. We'll see if and where parameters may still need to be adjusted."
Uncharted territory - soon accessible?
Sartorius has also recognised the potential of plant proteins and cultured meat - as well as the hurdles on the way to tasty and affordable meat alternatives. In a model calculation, the company calculated: Production costs would have to fall to below €10 per kilogramme in order to sell New Food at an acceptable price. For many traditional food manufacturers, however, the biotechnological processes involved in the processing of living animal cells as raw materials are likely to be rather uncharted territory. What succeeds on a laboratory scale is by no means always easy to scale up to industrial production.
Against this background, Sartorius supports manufacturers with intelligent software for multivariate data analysis and design of experiments (DOE), among other things. With the help of special programmes, they should be able to test the influence of oxygen content, perfusion and other variables with the least possible use of resources. The portfolio also includes automated cryo-filling systems for establishing stem cell banks or biological re-differentiation as well as solutions for cryo-preservation and more.
The opportunities for cultured meat still face major challenges. This ranges from the processing of targeted cell collection and the use of suitable culture media to up-scaling and the formation of desired meat structures. In addition, there is the problem of approval in Europe, because companies have to apply for approval as New Food. It is also important to reduce the currently very high production costs and to improve general consumer acceptance. Initial studies on material flows and energy balances indicate that in-vitro meat takes up significantly less space and has a better CO2 balance than conventional meat - but requires significantly more energy. Environmental impacts and sustainability potentials still require intensive investigation.