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UK's HigherSteaks races to create pork from animal cells, not slaughtered meat

Jill Petzinger
Jill Petzinger, Germany Correspondent, Yahoo Finance UK
A show pig looks at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, US, August 8, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Brian Snyder

The meat production industry is one of the worst offenders when it comes to environmental destruction caused by farming and feeding livestock, and the animals’ climate-heating emissions.

This week, a group of scientists warned that the global livestock production cannot keep growing at its current pace and asked countries to set a “peak meat” production limit soon to tackle rising carbon dioxide levels.

On top of environmental and health concerns, most people are also now aware of the abominable suffering of animals in factory farms. However, while the success of companies such as Beyond Meat (BYND) — now being sold in McDonald’s — proves there is a huge market for plant-based burgers, meat-lovers will still crave the taste and texture of bacon, burgers, and steaks.

And that is what UK-based startup HigherSteaks is betting on. Co-founded in 2017 by Benjamina Bollag, a 26-year-old with a Masters in chemical engineering from Imperial College, HigherSteaks is right now in the development process and aiming to bring cultured pork — created from animal cells, not slaughtered meat — to our plates from 2022.

While some of its competitors are developing steak, or chicken, HigherSteaks has chosen pork, because it is the most-consumed meat in the world, a big user of antibiotics, and also in the grip of a massive crisis due to rampaging African Swine Fever.

READ MORE: Swine fever in China driving up sausage prices in Germany

At Techcrunch Disrupt in Berlin, Bollag told Yahoo Finance UK that “if everything goes well” they are looking at three-to-five years to launch their cultured pork — bacon will be the first thing on the menu.

HigherSteaks co-founder and CEO Benjamina Bollag pictured at Techcrunch Disrupt Berlin, 11 December, 2019. Credit: Benjamina Bollag

Bollag said that cultured (or clean meat as it is also known) is a “no-brainer” for a number of reasons. “The advantages of this is that we have a lower carbon footprint, lower environmental impact, lower water usage, no antibiotics and obviously no animals are killed.” she said. “It’s quite similar to the advantages of moving to plant-based [food] but with all the taste and nutritional advantages of meat.”

Lab work

In a simplified explanation, the process works like this: Scientists remove a small sample of cells from an animal—without killing it—and put them in a special solution in a bio-reactor, where they are grown to become muscle, fat, and other different types of tissue.

The first ever burger patty grown from cells was presented to the world back in 2013 by Maastricht University professor Mark Post. It cost €250,000 (£207,979; $278,389) and was grown using bovine fetal serum.

HigherSteaks and its competitors are secretive about the exact composition of the growth mediums they are using, but Bollag said her company does not use bovine fetal serum because it is scarce, super expensive, and harms animals.

“To us, it is counter intuitive,” she said. “You have to kill the cow, it’s not ethical, but even if you didn’t care, the biotech industry is moving away from it because it is essentially inconsistent, whereas if you have a chemically defined medium you get the same results, over and over.”

Tasty investment

Professor Mark Post shows the world's first lab-grown beef burger in London, August 5, 2013. The meat was made by knitting together around 20,000 strands of protein cultured from cattle stem cells. Photo: Reuters/David Parry

Lab-grown meat startups are beginning to attract major investment. In October, Israel’s Future Meat Technologies, based near Tel Aviv, announced it had raised $14m (£10.4m) to fund its first manufacturing plant, with an eye to drastically lowering the cost of cell-cultured beef and chicken. 

Dutch startup Meatable recently announced it has raised $10m for production of its cell-grown pork.

Higher Steaks has so far raised a pre-seed round of about $200,000, and will require funding of “$10 to 15m in about a year.”

While costs of creating cell-grown meats are dropping fast, it remains to be seen if it can come down low enough to make it a viable alternative to cheap, factory-farmed meat.

While taste, texture, and juiciness are important when it comes to adoption, general public acceptance of meat from a lab will be the first hurdle to cross for these startups.

Bollag said they ran a survey to test the waters on whether people were open to the concept in the UK and France and found that 51% of meat eaters said they would switch to cultivated meat, about 30% said they would prefer plant-based meat substitutes, and the rest said “leave me alone with my meat.”

In the EU, it will also need approval under the novel foods regulations before it can be sold to consumers; the Higher Steaks CEO says cultured meat startups could be open to lobbying and pushing for regulatory approval together.

In August this year, a bunch of US cultured meat and fish companies banded together to form the Alliance for Meat, Poultry, and Seafood Innovation to lobby Washington for mainstream acceptance of their products.   

“There is a massive sense of urgency as there are a lot of things on the line,” Bollag said. “In this case it’s ‘move fast but don’t break things.’”