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Veterinary considerations for artificial meat

Armed with a balance between scientific enthusiasm and the realities of animal production, it seems very important that veterinary surgeons consider the factors involved in the production of artificial meat as regulators and politicians will be looking for guidance

There is a view that many veterinary surgeons are much laden with corporate gold and working within cash-generating units. It seems reasonable to assume that individuals will be targeted by companies seeking investment in the technological development of artificial meat, where it is indicated that fortunes will be made and many will lose their shirt. The arguments for and against this development are many and varied, and it is veterinary awareness that will enable a balanced view.

There will be those who will object immediately to the term artificial meat. It is understood that whether beef, pork, fish or poultry is to be produced, the production process is similar. Stem cells are extracted from a live animal and placed in a petri dish with nutrients that help the cells divide and grow. The broth is then transferred to a bioreactor containing minerals, sugars, hormones and growth factors. Considerable quantities of water and electricity are applied to provide fat and muscle. It is expected that a small tissue sample can produce several tonnes of meat within a few weeks.

Maastricht University are credited with producing the first in vitro burger, which they accomplished in 2013 at a cost of $325,000. Cultured meat start-up companies were formed five years ago and much activity has been happening to improve the method and reduce the cost. A rough guide today is that if a traditional burger costs £1, an in vitro burger costs £10. Beef and pork mince are major targeted developments, along with chicken. The Singapore government has embraced the technology to overcome their dependence on imported meat and have licensed an American company to provide “chicken nuggets”. The successful acceptance and consumption of the product in Singapore is expected to lead to further development in Asia and the USA. An important consideration is that production would be close to the consumers.

For UK farm vets, there may be a worrying few years ahead. The start-up companies will entice investors with the notion that the majority of “meat” will be produced in vitro, with a pork joint, rib-eye steak or whole chicken being a speciality product produced of high quality and at high cost. One company is promoting itself as the answer to “clean meat”. Clean, in this context, refers to the human condition of being “clean”, or drug-free. The broth has not been administered medicines or drugs, and the tissue is therefore drug-free. This concept is expected to place focus on traditional production where much effort and legislation is in place to produce residue-free meat. Can residue-free truly be considered drug-free? The Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture (RUMA) group will no doubt be considering the technicalities. It will be interesting to identify how many meat-producing animals pass through the farming process drug-free. Does the use of fertility products in the dam mean the offspring will not be drug-free when slaughtered? There will be lessons learned here from the objections to vaccination during the COVID-19 pandemic and the understanding, or lack thereof, about individual disease and the utilisation of medicines within the body.

The other major promotion for the broth approach is expected to be “cruelty-free”. It is anticipated that much effort and expense will be applied to highlight cruelty in meat production as a way of swaying consumers to eat guilt-free meat products. It may be that farm animal veterinary surgeons should try to persuade their small animal colleagues about the modern approach to animal welfare on farms. The responses received could be of major help to the next generation and highlight where improvements in fact and communication would be of greatest value.

A further development is the possibility of farmers producing the raw material for in vitro meat. Growth factors are recognised as being one of the major costs for the production process and the original method involved foetal bovine serum; however, growth factors could be obtained from plants instead. One start-up is looking for farmers to plant and harvest the crops and even have a small-scale bioreactor on-site (provided by the company together with the necessary growth factors and proteins) which would be managed by smart software to produce their own “meat”. Rather than having a multimillion-pound manufacturing plant, there would be smaller local productions. The cost of electricity is seen as a major limitation, so the idea of low-cost green energy slots is also an area of interest.

There are, of course, alternative views to the benefits of the production of artificial meat. There appears to be an underlying agenda against factory farming together with the view that traditional agriculture is unable to produce enough meat to feed the world. For supporters of traditional production, a major consideration is that livestock benefit the ecosystem, contribute to carbon capture and provide rural livelihoods.

The critical question appears to be whether the average consumer will care where their meat comes from. A cookery book, The In Vitro Meat Cookbook, is available and the product is promoted as an alternative to insects or tofu to solve a future world protein crisis. Ivy Farm Technologies is an Oxford University spin-off that plans to produce “sustainable guilt-free sausages” by 2023, meatballs and beef burgers are to follow. Ivy is a play on in vitro or IV. Discussions are taking place between the company and the Food Standards Agency concerning market approval.

It is mainly the cost of production that is currently limiting in vitro meat to a speciality restaurant product of high cost. Scaled-up production is expected to bring cost parity with traditional animal meat. A balance between scientific enthusiasm and the realities of animal production will require knowledge of both camps. It seems very important that veterinary surgeons consider the factors involved, especially as regulators and politicians will be looking for guidance.