This Biotech Company Is Growing Meatballs in a Lab

In just a few years, lab-grown meat might make it to the market

Could meatballs like these one day be made in a lab? Maria Komar/The Picture Pantry/Corbis

For the last few years, several biotech companies have been vying to be the first to bring lab-grown meat to supermarket shelves. Now, San Francisco-based startup Memphis Meats is moving ahead in the race by unveiling its first product: a meatball made without an animal ever seeing the inside of a slaughterhouse.

It might sound like science fiction, but in a time when people can buy a powder to replace all their meals, test tube meat might not be all that surprising. By taking cow stem cells and infusing them with nutrients in bioreactors, Memphis Meats says it can create meat that is safe to eat and tastes just as good as the real stuff, but using a fraction of the resources traditional ranchers need to feed their livestock, Manasi Gandhi writes for Inquisitr.

“We watched how the meatball reacted in the pan, we heard the sizzle, we smelled the meat and it was exactly how you would expect a meatball to smell,” Memphis Meats CEO Uma Valeti says in a video (below) showcasing the company’s signature lab-made meatball. “This is the first time a meatball has ever been cooked with beef cells that didn’t require a cow to be slaughtered.”

Future of Food - The World's First Cultured Meatball

In recent years, companies experimenting with making “cultured meat,” as the lab-grown meat is called, have figured out how to grow not just beef, but also pork and chicken.

In 2013, a company called Mosa Meat unveiled a hamburger made from cultured meat grown from stem cells, and both companies say that they are aiming to have their products on store shelves within the next five years, if all goes according to plan, Maddie Stone writes for Gizmodo.

“Cultured meat is sustainable, creates far fewer greenhouse gases than conventional meat, is safer, and doesn’t harm animals,” Bruce Friedrich, director of the Good Food Institute said in a statement. “For people who want to eat meat, cultured meat is the future.”

Resource-wise, beef is one of the costliest foods to produce. Compared to other proteins like pork, chicken, and eggs, beef production uses far more resources – up to 28 times more land, six times the fertilizer, and 11 times more water, according to a 2014 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In comparison, Valeti says Memphis Meats’ beef production uses 90 percent less land and water and 50 percent less energy than conventionally-raised beef, and doesn’t need antibiotics, Michal Addady reports for Forbes. All that, plus the added comfort of knowing that the process of making your hamburger didn’t hurt as much as a fly makes for a compelling case for proponents of the technology.

As intriguing as the prospects of lab-made meat might be, the field is still in its infancy and has several significant factors to overcome before it might start showing up in the meat section of the supermarket. For one, cultured meat has no capillary system to keep it supplied with oxygen as it grows, which means that people have had to produce the cells in very thin layers to keep it oxygenated.

Also, all lab-made meat is currently grown in a medium called “fetal bovine serum,” a nutrient-rich fluid extracted from unborn calves. This system is expensive, and it means that animals are still involved in the process, even if the calves weren’t slaughtered for the serum, Stone writes. Memphis Meats and other companies are working to create a plant-based alternative, but for now actual animals are still part of the cultured meat production process.

Aside from the technical difficulties, Memphis Meats will still have to convince consumers that cultured meat is just as tasty as the real stuff. However, the company is going for it whole-hog, so to speak, and plans on starting by supplying its product to barbecue joints in meat-loving Memphis, Tennessee. If it can catch on there, who knows what the future of lab-made meat will hold.

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