Cultivated meat plays a crucial role in reshaping the current agri-food system

Within the framework of the Smartfarm project, AINIA has made significant strides in the efficient and sustainable production of cultivated meat, a sustainable alternative that could help meet the growing global demand for proteins.

Paloma Juárez Ortega, Coordinadora del proyecto Smartfarm del Departamento de Biotecnología Industrial en AINIA
Food & feed
Animal health

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has warned that by the year 2050, the world's population will exceed 9.7 billion people. The continuous population growth we face threatens current food and resource sources. Projections indicate the need for sustainable alternatives that effectively address the challenges of sustainability and food security posed by population growth.

In this regard, cultivated meat presents itself as an innovative solution that can significantly contribute to reducing the environmental impact of meat production (reducing greenhouse gas emissions and waste derived from the livestock industry, and requiring fewer resources), ensuring a stable food supply (it can enable production stability and meet growing demand without facing the limitations of traditional livestock farming, such as scalability and sustainability), and improving animal welfare (it is produced without the need to raise and slaughter animals), among other benefits.

The European Food Information Council (EUFIC) defines cultivated meat as meat developed from the cultivation of animal cells, rather than through the traditional raising and slaughtering of live animals.

In this context, and within the framework of the Smartfarm project, a multidisciplinary team at AINIA has made significant advances in the efficient and sustainable production of cultivated meat. From the biotechnology sector, they have stated that “it represents a sustainable alternative that could help meet the growing global demand for proteins.” To better understand the implications of these advances, we interviewed Dr. Paloma Juárez Ortega, Coordinator of the Smartfarm project (Industrial Biotechnology Department at AINIA).

AseBio: With the Smartfarm project, you have managed to cultivate bovine muscle and fat cells, extracted through biopsies, without the need for animal slaughter, to achieve a sustainable alternative to traditional meat. How did you achieve this? How is this process carried out?

Paloma Juárez Ortega: This type of process, where different cell types are isolated from biopsies or tissues, has been used in research, mainly clinical, for a long time. In the project, we have adapted all the knowledge from the scientific community about these procedures, applied to other sectors, to achieve this goal. The process begins with the extraction of a small tissue sample, in our case, bovine muscle or fat tissue, through a biopsy of a few millimeters, a minimally invasive procedure. After obtaining the tissue, it is disaggregated to obtain the cells that form it, and they are placed in a culture medium specifically designed for the growth and multiplication of the cells of interest. The cells are cultured in bioreactors using this culture medium, aiming to provide all the necessary nutrients and somewhat simulate the internal conditions of the animal's body, creating an optimal environment for cell development. The process can be adjusted to improve the nutritional and sensory properties of the final product.

AseBio: In some countries, commercial launches of cultivated meat have already been made. What is the current regulatory situation of cultivated meat in Spain?

Paloma Juárez Ortega: In Spain, the regulatory situation of cultivated meat is still under development. Unlike some countries that have already commercially launched this product, in Spain and the European Union in general, cultivated meat has not yet received the necessary approval for commercialization.

The regulation of new foods in the European Union, which includes cultivated meat, is under Regulation (EU) 2015/2283 on novel foods. This regulation requires any new food to undergo a thorough safety evaluation process before being authorized for sale. This process is overseen by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

Currently, cultivated meat producers are at various stages of this approval process. These stages include presenting detailed scientific data demonstrating the product's safety, nutritional quality, and equivalence to traditional meat.

In Spain, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, along with the Spanish Agency for Food Safety and Nutrition (AESAN), works in coordination with European institutions to ensure that any new food technology meets the required safety and quality standards.

Although there is no specific date for the commercialization of cultivated meat in Spain yet, interest in this technology is growing, and significant research and developments are taking place in the country. As the regulatory process advances and more scientific data supporting the safety and benefits of cultivated meat accumulates, progress towards its approval and eventual availability in the Spanish market is likely.

AseBio: What are the main benefits of cultivated meat compared to traditional meat?

Paloma Juárez Ortega: Cultivated meat presents several significant benefits compared to traditional meat. Firstly, its production requires fewer natural resources and generates fewer greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to environmental sustainability and the fight against climate change. Additionally, since it is produced from animal cells without the need to slaughter animals, it addresses ethical concerns related to animal welfare. Another important benefit is improved food safety, as cultivated meat is produced in a controlled environment, reducing the risk of contamination by pathogens and animal-transmitted diseases, and eliminating the need for antibiotics. It also offers uniform quality and consistency, allowing for the design of products with specific nutritional properties. Production efficiency is another advantage, as meat can be produced in less time than required to raise and fatten animals. Finally, cell culture technology opens the door to innovation, allowing the creation of customized products according to consumer preferences and needs, including variations in flavor, texture, and nutritional content.

AseBio: How is the safety and quality of lab-grown meat ensured?

Paloma Juárez Ortega: The safety and quality of lab-grown meat are ensured through a rigorous process with strict controls at each stage of production. The process begins with the selection of tissue obtained from healthy animals, inspected by veterinarians, which will be cultivated in a sterile medium providing the necessary nutrients. During cultivation, the sterile conditions, routinely applied in bioreactor procedures, minimize the risk of contamination. Continuous monitoring techniques are also employed to detect possible contaminations, as well as monitoring temperature and pH to detect any deviations.

To ensure safety, lab-grown meat must comply with the regulations and standards set by health authorities. In the European Union, for example, it undergoes a thorough safety evaluation process by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) before being authorized for commercialization. This process includes reviewing scientific data that demonstrate the product's safety for human consumption.

Additionally, lab-grown meat is subjected to rigorous quality tests, including microbiological, chemical, and sensory analyses, to ensure that the final product is not only safe but also meets the expected standards for taste, texture, and nutritional value. Together, these procedures ensure the safety and quality of lab-grown meat, from cell selection to the final product.

AseBio: What challenges does lab-grown meat face in gaining consumer acceptance?

Paloma Juárez Ortega: Lab-grown meat faces several significant challenges in gaining consumer acceptance. One of the main obstacles is the perception and distrust some people have due to a lack of knowledge about the production process. Many consumers may feel uncomfortable with the idea of eating meat that does not come from a traditionally raised animal, leading to doubts about its naturalness and safety. Additionally, cost is another crucial factor. Currently, producing lab-grown meat is more expensive than conventional meat, resulting in higher prices for consumers. As technology advances and production techniques are optimized, costs are likely to decrease, but for now, price remains a significant barrier to widespread adoption. Regulation is also a major challenge. Lab-grown meat must go through a rigorous regulatory approval process before it can be commercialized. This process can be long and complex, and until regulatory frameworks are clearly established, the availability of the product in the market will be limited. Finally, a lack of knowledge and misinformation can hinder widespread acceptance. It is essential for lab-grown meat producers to conduct effective educational campaigns to inform consumers about the environmental, ethical, and food safety benefits of lab-grown meat, and to clarify any misunderstandings about the product.

In summary, the acceptance of lab-grown meat by consumers will depend on overcoming these challenges related to perception and distrust, cost, regulation, product quality, and consumer education.

AseBio: The current agri-food system is at a critical juncture that demands a reformulation to address the growing demand for proteins from a sustainable perspective. What role does this advancement play in this regard?

Paloma Juárez Ortega: Cultivated meat plays a crucial role in the reformulation of the current agri-food system, especially in response to the growing demand for proteins in a sustainable manner. This technological advancement offers a viable alternative to traditional livestock farming, which faces significant challenges in terms of sustainability and the capacity to meet the global protein demand.

Firstly, cultivated meat can be produced with a much smaller environmental footprint. Conventional livestock farming is one of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and deforestation. By producing meat in a controlled environment, these environmental impacts are significantly reduced, contributing to the fight against climate change and the conservation of natural resources.

Moreover, cultivated meat addresses the need to produce food more efficiently. Conventional meat production requires large amounts of land, water, and time. In contrast, cultivated meat can be produced more quickly and with fewer resources, increasing the efficiency of the agri-food system.

This advancement also tackles important ethical issues related to animal welfare. By eliminating the need to raise and slaughter animals for meat, animal suffering is reduced, promoting a more ethical and compassionate approach to food production.

From a food safety perspective, cultivated meat offers significant advantages. Production in a controlled environment reduces the risk of contamination by pathogens and foodborne diseases, and eliminates the need for antibiotics, helping to combat antibiotic resistance.

AseBio: This project also addresses the challenge posed by the use of fetal bovine serum, a costly ingredient commonly used in in vitro meat cultivation. What solutions are you working on?

Paloma Juárez Ortega: This project also tackles the challenge of using fetal bovine serum, a costly ingredient commonly used in in vitro meat cultivation. To address this issue, the team has been working with recombinant Escherichia coli (E. coli) platforms to produce Insulin-Like Growth Factors (IGFs). These growth factors are crucial for the development and proliferation of muscle and fat cells in the culture medium.

The use of recombinant E. coli allows for the production of these growth factors in a more economical and sustainable manner. By producing IGFs through this biotechnology, the need for fetal bovine serum in the culture medium can be eliminated, significantly reducing costs and making the production process of cultivated meat more accessible and ethical. This innovation not only decreases dependency on animal-derived ingredients but also improves the scalability and commercial viability of cultivated meat, bringing us closer to sustainable protein production.