From slaughterhouse to science lab: The rise of cultivated meat production

According to the US Department of Agriculture, 46 million turkeys are eaten annually as part of Thanksgiving feasts. But could this soon change with the arrival of cell-cultured meat production, driven by some major bioprocess vendors?

Cell-cultured meat production is increasing significantly with MarketsandMarkets predicting the sector to reach $1.1 billion by 2034. Though not the usual modality BioProcess Insider covers, various companies in the life science industry have expanded their interest and activity to cell-cultured meat research and manufacturing because of the similarity in equipment and expertise required.

The growing awareness of sustainability and environmental challenges is being discussed on all frontiers, including livestock farming. The creation of cultured meats is said to address these complexities by decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, land use, and the overall environmental footprint associated with production over traditional methods.

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So far, human consumption of cultivated meat has only been approved in Singapore and the US. And while regions rally for its development, others are more resistant because of the effect this could have on local farmers. This week, Italian Members of Parliament (MPs) voted to support a law banning the manufacture, sale, or importation of cultivated meat to defend “Italian tradition.”

While big pharma companies are yet to delve into the production of cell-cultured meat, service providers such as Thermo Fisher Scientific, Merck KGaA, and Multus Biotechnology have begun expanding research and product offering to cater for the cell-cultured meat market.

We sat down with Timothy Olsen, head of cultured meat at Germany’s Merck KGaA to discuss what role the life science industry is playing and how its portfolio of cell-cultured meat market products (available through MilliporeSigma– the life sciences division of Germany’s Merck KGaA – in the US and Canada) is responding.

BioProcess Insider (BI): What role is the life science industry playing in the cultured meat market?

TO: Cultured meat involves manufacturing animal cells in industrial bioreactors, which is leveraging many of the technologies that have been developed in the life science industries.

The whole bioprocess takes place in a sterile environment, from initial biopsy cultures to harvest for final product formation, which includes extensive safety testing during and after manufacturing. Safety is the highest priority for cultured meat companies and the regulatory authorities.

BI: You mentioned the use of technology that has been developed in the life science sector, what other experiences are transferable?

TO: Life science companies have decades of bioprocess experience from bench top to scaled manufacturing and quality control, making it a great starting point for cultured meat companies today. Our technology roadmap includes developing fit-for-purpose solutions based on industry needs over time in cell culture media, cells, scaffolds, biomonitoring, safety testing, and upstream/downstream manufacturing unit operations.

For instance, cell culture media is a key raw material input for all cultured meat companies, and it accounts for about 50% of the bill of materials costs today. To achieve commercialization at scale, media must be cost-efficient, produced from a robust supply chain of raw materials, suitable for effective growth and differentiation into specific cell types with desired quality attributes, and free of any animal-derived materials.

BI: We’ve discussed similarities between the two sectors, what adaptations are needed for biotech’s to manufacture this type of product?

TO: Producing biologics and cultured meat look similar at a high level, however, the main difference has to do with the final product. For cultured meat, the cells will be harvested to create the meat product and then consumed, while for biologics, the active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) like a therapeutic antibody is what the cells secrete, which is then harvested and prepared most often for injection.

Beyond the technical differences in producing these product types, the safety, and regulatory considerations for producing food and biologics are evident. However, there is a tremendous fountain of knowledge from decades of bioprocessing development—both successes and setbacks—that pharma can use to have impact on the emerging cultured meat industry.

BI: We’ve covered similarities, how does the regulatory process differ from standard life science products?

TO: In the US cultured meat production is jointly regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The exception here is for cultured seafood, which will be governed by the FDA only. For drugs, biologics, and medical devices, the FDA is the sole agency that regulates the clinical investigations. In cultured meat production, the FDA will oversee all process elements from initial cell isolation to cell or meat harvest, and then the USDA will oversee the facilities for inspection and labelling requirements.

The approval process requires complete review of product and will use a hazards-based approach based on raw material inputs and considerations of potential toxicity. Just like in life sciences products, safety is the most important aspect for regulators considering cultured meat products. As life sciences companies are likely to play the role of enabling tech providers, it is critical for startups to communicate their needs to go to market so that these tech partners understand regulatory burden and risk to provide guidance on quality and technical specifications for raw material inputs like cells, media, bioreactors, environmental safety testing, and more.

BI: Thinking of the differences, what have you identified as the challenges associated with cultured meat and seafood?

TO: For cultured meat and seafood, one of the biggest challenges today is around scaling new cell types and species using novel culturing platforms with long term cost models that can be competitive in the food system.

In our approach, collecting voice of customer from cultured meat startups and having early discussions with regulatory authorities was needed to understand the landscape. Cultured meat companies are using different cell types from a variety of species, like avian, porcine, bovine, fish, and exotics like crocodile. This is a challenge because the foundational knowledge about the cells is limited in the literature examples, other than bovine and porcine from tissue engineering and regenerative medicine applications, and the reagents to characterize and grow them hardly exist on the market.

BI: With this in mind, what would you say MilliporeSigma is providing to enable production of cell-cultured meat?

TO: Today, MilliporeSigma is providing dry powder cell culture media manufactured on the order of tons to leading startups around the world bringing the first cultured meat products to market. Our company believes in strong collaborations and has been actively working with partners in industry, academia, and government affairs to understand the needs to support go to market today and the target requirements for the future to help develop the enabling technologies and solutions required to mass market cultured meat products.

BI: Is there a way to convert “traditional” life science facilities into producing this product?  

TO: Life science companies and breweries will certainly have an important role in sharing their bioprocessing experience so it can be leveraged, adapted, and used to scale cultured meat, poultry, and seafood. MilliporeSigma wants to facilitate and enable the Cultured Meat & Seafood producer, leveraging all our expertise.

BI: What talent will be required to manufacture cell-cultured meat products?

TO: For cultured meat to be successful, there is a requirement to use a multidisciplinary approach to solve the challenges facing the industry that is inclusive of engineers, biologists, data and automation scientists, supply chain specialists, culinary experts, and more—we call this bioconvergence.

A lot of the skillsets in demand, like media development, cell line optimization, and scale up in bioreactors exist in the pharma industry, thus there has been heavy recruitment of these individuals over the last few years. To have impact in the cultured meat space, these talents must think creatively to apply their skillsets from pharma to the context of food technologies.

For cell biologists, there is a need to study cell types from species with little available knowledge. For bioprocess engineers, there is a critical need to achieve media and bioreactor productivities that haven’t yet been achieved for these new cell types.

BI: Is academia playing a role in this?

TO: Luckily, the field is full of passionate people motivated to support the revolution to produce meat ethically and sustainably for the world. Our company believes in using science as a force for good, and so we leverage this mentality to bring together the skilled people and resources to be a leader in the industry.

Academia is aware of the need for developing the future workforce of cultured meat experts and responding with the build out of industry specific programs, like at Tufts University and University of California, Davis in the US, at the University of Vechta and Technical Universities of Darmstadt and Munich in Germany, and the National University of Singapore.