January 9, 2023—A new process that significantly improves manufacturing efficiency and lowers the cost of producing cultured chicken was just published in the journal Nature Foods.
In the study led by Hebrew University Prof. Yaakov Nahmias, who is also the Founder, President, and Chief Technology Officer of Believer Meats, researchers produced immortal cell lines of chicken fibroblasts using a process of spontaneous immortalization patented by the company last year. In contrast to others in the field, the process does not require genetic modifications, and thus the product is uniquely non-GMO. Believer recently announced its first U.S. facility, located in Wilson, North Carolina, and the planned 200,000 sq. ft., location is slated to be the world’s largest cultivated meat plant to have broken ground to date.
“Genetic modifications can introduce unintended mutations that increase the risk of immunological reactions, and thus we chose to avoid them completely,” said Prof. Nahmias. “One issue of concern in the field is whether the immortalization process leads to the production of cancer-forming cell lines. However, the work showed that the process developed by our group resulted in cells with normal DNA repair mechanisms and without the ability to form tumors.”
Another unique aspect of the study was the demonstration that spontaneous cells grown in suspension could be produced in densities of over 100 billion cells per liter, more than 17 times the industrial standard.
“This effectively increases the process yields from 2% to 36% weight per volume,” explains Nahmias, “By analogy, this would allow one to produce about 880 pounds of meat, or about a cow a month, from a vessel the size of a typical refrigerator.”
Public demand for transparency in food production has been rapidly growing this past decade, driven by reports of food-borne diseases and videos of animal cruelty. A recent report from the Food Industry Association (FMI) suggests that two-thirds of consumers prefer brands that tell the whole story about how their products are made, and how safe and sustainable they are. This increased demand for more humane, safe, and sustainable methods of meat production accelerated the public excitement for lab-grown or cultured meat.
Consumer research studies show that American consumers are eager to try cultured meat, without fully understanding its method of production. Regretfully, most cultured meat companies hold their methods of production as trade secrets, disclosing little information on product composition and safety.
“We strongly believe that honesty is the best policy,” said Prof. Nahmias. “As a parent, I am eternally worried about the nutrition of my children. I want to know that what I give them to eat is safe, healthy, and preferably sustainable. We wanted to ensure that everyone knows where our cell lines came from, how stable and safe they are, and that our efficiency is made a matter of public information, leading to the robust and sustainable production of lab-grown meat that everyone can afford.”
The team also showed the effective differentiation of fat cells that produced the distinct aroma and flavor of chicken meat.
“We developed a highly efficient differentiation process that uses natural soy lecithin to turn fibroblasts into fat cells in under a week,” said Nahmias. “Combining the cultured cells with plant proteins produced hybrid products in which the aroma and flavor came from lab-grown cells and the proteins were a blend of cells and plant proteins. The paper goes on to show a significant preference for the lab-grown chicken product in consumer testing.”
Taken together, the paper breaks that “big wall of no” described by Paul Wood and David Humbrid in last year’s Counter article that challenged the feasibility of lab-grown meat. The Counter analysis assumed a maximum density of 22 to 65 billion cells per liter and expensive growth factors that are not required by fibroblasts. A production density of 100 billion cells per liter cuts average projected costs by threefold, to about $7.5 per pound of biomass, or $3.3 per pound of hybrid product, within the price range of commercial chicken manufacturing.
Nahmias concludes, “Growing global food companies, like Believer Meats, must commit to full transparency. My kids want to know how their hamburger is made, and I need to look them in the eye and explain why the food I serve them is healthy, safe, and sustainable. We must ensure that we, as an industry, provide all the scientific data and information to the public. If we do not rise to this challenge, consumers will search and find disinformation from charlatans online. I want to lead this conversation.”