Test tube meat is everywhere. Well, maybe not everywhere in the actual flesh just yet, but certainly, it’s everywhere in the news.
In December, San-Francisco based start-up Eat Just made headlines from Beijing to Berlin when it won regulatory approval from the Singapore government to sell lab-grown chicken there. The approval comes as part of the Southeast Asian city-state’s efforts to have at least 30 percent of its food produced on the island by 2030. Lab-grown meat and vertical farming are two ways they plan to get there.
British-based news weekly The Economist predicted lab meat would be a top global food trend in 2021. It’s running a close second to eating insects for protein. While we were watching President Joe Biden’s inauguration, Spain’s government was announcing a big R&D investment in San Sebastian, Spain-based BioTech Foods to cultivate meat from muscle cells extracted from animals.
CNN’s Fareed Zakaria recently started his three-minute report on the topic with a live chicken called Ian whose cells, he explained, were copied to make the lab-grown chicken nuggets being eaten by a gaggle of humans seated at a picnic table behind him. At the end of the segment the frame fades from Ian – who’s still wandering around seemingly unbothered that meat genetically connected to him is being consumed with glee at such close range – back to Zakaria’s stony, serious face. And he says: “For those of you who are wondering, yes, it does indeed taste like chicken.”
More palatable terms for this science-based solution to the environmental, animal rights and human health issues wrapped up in industrialized farming of chickens, pigs and cows include “cultured meat” or “cellular meat.” The catchphrase I think will put the most wind in the proverbial sails, and the actual worldwide sales, of lab-raised animal proteins is “clean meat.” It stands neatly in opposition to dirty meat reputedly raised in criminally close quarters, on corn-based feed and with high doses of antibiotics.
“Clean Meat” is also the title of a 2018 best-selling book by Paul Shapiro, the subtitle for which is “How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner in the World.” Shapiro founded The Better Meat Co. in Sacramento, California. This company doesn’t yet culture meat from animal cells, but rather makes a plant-based meat crumble that gets mixed with traditional meat to make products like Perdue’s chicken nuggets. Having half the meat in play derived from plant sources is better than none is the transitional selling point here.
Cultured or cellular meat is not a plant-based derivative that looks and acts like meat enough to be offered in fast-food chains like Burger King with its Impossible Whopper and McDonalds with its McPlant sandwich to be released later this year. Companies like Eat Just, BioTech Foods, California-based Memphis Meats, Dutch companies Meatable and Mosa Meat, Israel-based Future Meat are all working on products that are genetically and biologically identical to meat encased in skin and supported by bones.
New Harvest is a nonprofit research institute based in Texas that supports public research on cultured meat. Scientists say this process falls under the heading of Cellular Agriculture. Acellular animal-sourced foods (like milk) can be made without animals by using a microbe like yeast or bacteria. A gene carrying the blueprint for the milk protein casein is inserted into the yeast. The yeast, because it now carries the recombinant DNA, makes casein identical to the casein cows make in their milk. Rennet, the enzyme historically pulled from the fourth stomach of calves, has been widely used to turn milk into cheese for hundreds of years. In 1990, the FDA approved a genetically engineered bacteria to produce rennet. Today most of the rennet used in cheesemaking is made using similar processes.
Cellular agriculture is tissue engineering, New Harvest’s primer on the topic explains. Research on the topic has been evolving in the medical field for a while now with efforts like growing skin for burn victims or organs for patients requiring a transplant as evidence of its success.
But scientists working to make cultured meat take chicken, cow, pig or duck cells – some of which are stem cells harvested from embryos while others have patented processes to manufacture the necessary cells without needing to kill an animal as a prerequisite – and place them in petri dishes with amino acids and carbohydrates to help the muscle and fat cells multiply. The tissues grow into molds that shape them into boneless chicken breasts, pork cutlets or sirloin steak tips. A single tissue sample from a cow, for example, can be used to make a seemingly limitless number of burgers.
Most cultured meat companies are touting similar numbers about how the environmental toll from making their product compares to conventionally raising animals for food. They claim that, pound for pound, their way of making meat amasses 80 percent less greenhouse gas emissions, 99 percent less land use and 96 percent less freshwater usage while providing the exact same nutritional value.
So, as I said at the beginning of this column, lab-grown meat is going to be everywhere soon, and it’s being touted as a saving grace on several fronts. The question remains for all omnivores: Are you going to eat it? I’m on the fence, balanced between choking down the mental “ick” factor and wondering if I’d really be able to tell the difference.
Singapore Noodles with Maine Scallops
I wanted to tip my hat to the work Singapore is doing to increase the amount of food it grows on the island to 30 percent by 2030. I fixed on a Singapore noodles recipe only to learn the dish has more ties to Hong Kong. So I adapted the recipe to further suit our local food system and swapped out the traditional shrimp for Maine scallops.
½-pound scallops, cleaned and halved
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2½ teaspoons Asian fish sauce
1 bundle (about 5½ ounces) dried rice vermicelli noodles
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon grated ginger
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons Shaoxing wine
¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
½ teaspoon sugar
2 shallots, thinly sliced
½ medium red bell pepper, thinly sliced
12 snow peas, thinly sliced
1 medium carrot, julienned
1 tablespoon curry powder
2 scallions, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds
Pat scallops dry place in a small bowl with 1 teaspoon vegetable oil, ½ teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon fish sauce. Mix well and set aside.
Place rice noodles in a large bowl and cover with boiling water. Let stand for 5 minutes. Drain noodles, rinse with cold running water, and use kitchen scissors to cut the noodles in half.
In a small bowl, combine garlic, ginger, soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, white pepper, sugar and remaining 2 teaspoons fish sauce. Mix well and set aside.
Beat eggs in a small bowl with ½ teaspoon salt. Heat 1 teaspoon oil in a wok or nonstick skillet over high heat, swirling oil, until it starts to smoke. Add eggs and cook undisturbed for about 10 seconds, then gently move the eggs around the hot surface until they start to firm up. Transfer eggs to a large bowl and break them up into small pieces.
Wipe the pan clean, add 2 teaspoons oil and place it over high heat until oil smokes again. Add scallops and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add shallots and stir-fry for another 30 seconds. Add red bell pepper and snow peas and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add carrots, 1 teaspoon curry powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook tossing, until curry is evenly distributed. Transfer scallops and vegetables to the bowl with the eggs.
Wipe the pan clean again. Heat remaining vegetable oil over high heat until it smokes. Add noodles and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add reserved garlic and soy sauce mixture and remaining 2 teaspoons curry powder. Stir until curry powder is evenly distributed. Return eggs, scallops and vegetables to pan and stir-fry until everything is evenly combined, about 30 seconds. Season with salt if necessary and remove from heat. Add scallions, drizzle with sesame oil, mix well, and transfer to a large serving bowl. Garnish with sesame seeds and serve immediately.
Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer, tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at: [email protected]