Jailbreak time for cell-based protein?

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Are cell-based proteins and fats about to burst into the big-time? And if so, how will they be described and presented to consumers? Paul Gander talks to experts and innovators in Europe and the USA

Anyone doubting the central importance of how a novel product, process or company is named or described should take a look at developments in the cell-based meat sector.

Cell-based agriculture – where meat, fat or plant-derived protein cells are cultured in high-nutrient media, optimised and structured – goes by many names. It is sometimes called ‘lab-grown’ or ‘cultured’ protein. But how to standardise terminology?

In the US last year, non-profit and advocate of sustainable plant-derived and cell-based proteins the Good Food Institute (GFI) garnered industry and investor opinion in this area. The term which met with most approval, and was judged to be sufficiently clear and appealing to consumers, was ‘cultivated meat’.

On the GFI blog, co-founder and director Bruce Friedrich points out that at the beginning of the last century, avocados were known as ‘alligator pears’. Their roaring success in the 21st Century might never have happened, he suggests, had it not been for this carefully-considered name change. ‘Cultivated meat’, he implies, could be the new ‘avocado’.

Irrespective of the terminology used, investment in this sector is growing at a phenomenal rate in both Europe and North America – among some of the key businesses in the area, at least.  For example, as GFI spokesman Matt Ball reminds F&FT, Mosa Meat in the Netherlands recently raised $55 million (M) in Series B funding.

Matt Ball, GFI

Matt Ball, GFI

Ball adds: “Based on funding, Memphis Meats would probably be considered the [market]leader, given their Series B.” The funding round he refers to realised a hefty $161M, as California-based Memphis announced at the beginning of the year.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Memphis confirms to F&FT that the company is working across the range of different protein end-uses: cell-based meat, poultry and seafood. “We expect our pilot plant to be operational by the end of 2021,” he adds.

Commercial production at any sort of volume is still a long way off, even for the most heavily-invested businesses. As Ball explains, there has been no shortage of ‘proof-of-concept’ tastings. “But the biggest challenges for cultivated meat companies are scaling up production and driving down costs.”

Further research could have an impact in both these areas. In the US, this new sector appears as something more than a blip on the funding radar, as evidenced by a $3.55M grant, only weeks ago, from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The funding will benefit research at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), with investigations over five years targeting areas including the development of stable cell-lines and of plant-based media in which to grow those cells.

Those with a grip on Europe’s research purse strings are rather more equivocal about supporting cultivated proteins. In a letter to the European Commission just over a year ago, the GFI and co-signatories including Mosa and Belgian cell-based fat specialist Peace of Meat asked for plant-based and cultivated proteins to be considered as recipients of Horizon Europe research funding.

Since then, GFI’s Ball says he has been encouraged by the publication of the Commission’s ‘Farm to Fork Strategy’, part of the EU’s Green Deal, and its advocacy of research into ‘alternative proteins’. But, although the overall sum up for grabs may total €10 billion, this is likely to be spread extremely thinly and, out of the GFI’s two key areas of interest, plant-based protein may turn out to be the only one to benefit.

Then again, regional and national governments within EU Member States are quite capable of spotting a research and business opportunity before the Commission. Peace of Meat (POM), based in Antwerp, has benefited from a €3.6M research grant from the regional government of Flanders.

Cultivated fat as an ingredient

Head of food and co-founder Eva Sommer tells F&FT that POM made a conscious choice to pursue cultivated fat rather than cultivated meat. One challenge, once you have your lab-grown meat cells, is how you structure them. “Are you going to grow your steak in a bioreactor?” asks Sommer. “It’s not clear how they’re going to do this. I don’t think you can ‘grow’ a large steak that way. You can create a small ‘steak’ in a petri dish.

She concedes that 3D-printed structured meat products may be feasible within five-to-10 years. But alternative routes to creating substantial pieces of cultivated meat could still be 25 years away, she warns. “The sector is still very young, and only sustained by equity capital,” says Sommer. If R&D is focused, for example, on creating the perfect steak, “the money will disappear,” she argues.

Even if cultivated meat is made available in formats such as mince in a shorter timeframe, the road to significant production volumes and to profitability remains a hard one, she seems to be saying.

With its cultivated fat, POM thinks it has found a way of piggy-backing on another alternative protein sector that is already in the ascendant. “Our aim is to use our fat in conjunction with plant-based products to make them tastier,” she says. “By 2030, we want to be producing 100,000 tonnes a year.”

Nuggets with POM's Cultured fat

Nuggets containing Peace of Meat’s Cultured fat

For now, Sommer will only say that an Antwerp pilot plant will be up and running “soon”, supplying ‘partners’ rather than customers. Those partners will be aiming to incorporate POM’s cultivated fat in proportions of up to 20% with plant-based proteins.

Vegan friendly?

Would this automatically disqualify such products from a ‘vegetarian’ or ‘vegan’ designation? As a practising vegan herself for the past 16 years, Sommer has given this question a lot of thought. Although she considers POM’s fat is ‘vegan-friendly’ on multiple levels, at least one vegan certification and labelling organisation has suggested it does not meet their criteria. One solution might be to align products with an ‘animal-friendly’, rather than vegan, labelling scheme.

As Sommer points out, the current EU regulatory structure around cultivated proteins and fats is something of a double-edged sword. That they now fall under the Novel Foods Regulation is welcome, she says, since this provides a framework within which new products can be assessed and introduced. The downside is that the approval process can take up to 18 months.

POM has found its own route round this bottleneck, choosing to seek the equivalent approvals initially in Singapore. Here, Sommer explains, companies can organise their own testing and, if results are judged positive, the process can take as little as three months. There are other advantages with selecting this Asian market as a launchpad. As she puts it, “They don’t have much livestock in Singapore.

The Peace of Meat team. Eva Sommer centre.

The Peace of Meat (POM) team. Eva Sommer centre.


Plant derived & cell-based

Another cell-based agriculture business contemplating the prospect of the EU Novel Foods approval process is Solar Foods in Finland. CEO Pasi Vainikka calls the company’s Solein “a new primary ingredient”, likening it to “a new type of wheat”. One big advantage is that this plant-derived, cell-based product is a “complete protein that can fully replace animal protein”.

Solein Tasting

Solein Tasting

Solar intends to submit a dossier for the EU’s Novel Foods process at the beginning of next year.

In common with other start-ups in this area, the Finnish company is determined to maintain control over its intellectual property (IP) for as long as possible.

Pasi Vainikka, CEO Solar Foods

Pasi Vainikka, CEO Solar Foods

We can’t have our Solein produced by third parties, because the technology is quite unique,” Vainikka tells F&FT. “So we need to invest capital and build our own factory – or ‘demonstrator’, as we call it.”

Like POM, Solar aims to leverage the strengths of cell-based technology in tandem with the advantages of plant-based food sources. “Unlike many companies who work with plant-based milks or sausage, for example, we’re actually aiming to launch products for every meal of the day,” he says.

Looking at the cell-based or cultivated protein sector as a whole, Vainikka sees huge potential for a proliferation of specialist businesses in this area, starting with platform ingredients and technologies such as gene editing.

It is difficult to overstate this potential, in his opinion: “There is a lot of venture capital flowing in, because a whole new sector – the new agriculture – is being established in the global economy.

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About Author

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Paul has worked as a staff and freelance writer and editor on technical and business topics for over 25 years, from assistant editor on Packaging News to editor of an international confectionery industry magazine and later of International Food Ingredients, sister publication to the FiE show. He has written regularly for Food Manufacture, and online services including FoodNavigator, NutraIngredients and FeedNavigator, over many years. He has also researched and written articles for the New Nutrition Business platform.

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