Tufts receives US$10M grant to help develop cultivated meat and gauge consumer appeal

05 Nov 2021 — A team led by a Tufts University (US) professor has received a five-year, US$10 million grant from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop an alternative food source – meat produced not from farm animals, but from cells grown in bioreactors. 

“Part of our research will look at improving the nutritional content, shelf life, and other qualities of cell-based meat, along with assessments of impact on consumer perceptions and acceptance,” says David Kaplan, professor of engineering and lead researcher.

Kaplan and his team of graduate students, will combine the efforts of engineers, biologists, nutrition researchers, and social scientists at Tufts and other universities, all in an effort to enhance food sustainability, nutrition and security.

Bridging industry and academia
The Tufts team will be working with the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, whose analysis will help the researchers get a better read on consumer acceptance of cultivated meat.

They also will provide a scientific basis for understanding what the total costs will be from beginning to end and how it compares to current methods of meat production.

To date, the commercial and academic laboratory efforts have mostly produced small-scale amounts of cell-grown tissues for meat from a laboratory setting.In addition, they will be conducting life-cycle assessments, examining all the inputs and ingredients that go into growing meat from cells, the energy required, the resources needed – such as water supply and transportation of materials – and also the waste that comes from the process, including greenhouse gases.

Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts will be supplying the animal biopsies to start its R&D of slaughter-free meat.

Also in collaboration with the teams, Virginia Tech will be carrying out research in many of the same areas as Tufts, such as cell isolations from other species, improvement of the meat in terms of authentic flavor and texture, nutritional analysis and consumer acceptance.

The University of California at Davis will be focused on food science, while the University of Massachusetts, Boston, will gather data on sustainability of cellular agriculture.

Research at Virginia State will be focused on the nutritional aspects of the new products, while MIT will be focused on AI and modeling approaches to optimize media formulations for cell culture.

“All of our collaborating institutions will be developing educational programs to facilitate workforce development, too,” details Kaplan.

Hurdles on the road to commercialization
The commercial and academic laboratory efforts have so far mostly produced small-scale amounts of cell-grown tissues for meat from a laboratory setting, notes Kaplan.

“But we are looking at industrial-level scale up in the future and how this might be accomplished,” he notes.

“The challenges are huge. From an engineering perspective, every time you scale to the next level there are new limitations in terms of energy requirements, moving and combining materials, dealing with safety and contamination issues.”

Last year, cultured chicken meat from Eat Just were green-lighted for sale in Singapore. (Credit: Eat Just)When asked about his initial thoughts on whether consumers will be receptive to this new source of meat in their diet, Kaplan comments: “That’s still an unknown, and that’s why we included consumer acceptance as an important part of our study.”

“The only data point we have so far is the overwhelming receptivity of consumers to plant-derived meats, like the Impossible Burgers and Beyond Burgers. You see those in supermarkets everywhere now, far exceeding anybody’s projections,” he comments.

“So whether it’s a similar response to cell-based meat or not we don’t know. We are anticipating positive views, but we can’t be sure.”

The next food revolution?
According to a recent report by Boston Consulting Group, consumption of animal-based produce in the US and Europe could be on its way down after hitting a “peak meat” apex in 2025. Cultivated-meat production is quickly emerging as an alternative source of sustainable protein, in line with this trend.

Kaplan underscores that this new industry could provide nutritious and safe foods while reducing environmental impact and resource usage – with a target of significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, land use and water use.

And the movement has been stimulating global interest. Last year, cultured chicken meat from Eat Just were green-lighted for sale in Singapore as an ingredient in sustainable chicken bites.

“That’s the first and only publicly released product so far from cellular agriculture,” says Kaplan. “There are many companies worldwide now pushing forward on the technology – but how soon their product will be on the shelf, I don’t know.”

Good Food Institute analysis recently suggested that China’s cell-based meat revolution could be on the cusp of becoming the country’s next big tech boom – as what previously happened in the case of its rapid development of solar panels, lithium-ion batteries and electric vehicles.

According to Boston Consulting Group, cell-based alternative proteins are anticipated to achieve parity by 2032.

By Benjamin Ferrer

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