Israeli start-ups seek food revolution with lab-made meat

Cultured meat is already on sale in Singapore

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At a laboratory in Israel, scientists are using cow cells to revolutionise the way people eat.

They are part of a growing industry intent on making meat without sending animals to slaughter.

“[We’re] growing the cells that originated from the cow,” said Neta Lavon, chief technical officer at Aleph Farms.

Walking through the company’s laboratory in Rehovot, a city in central Israel, she weaves between rooms filled with staff huddled over microscopes and Petri dishes.

“We are mimicking the developmental process that happens inside the cow,” Ms Lavon added, saying the process uses tissue extracted from a live animal.

Founded in 2017, Aleph Farms has been striving to grow beef which tastes like meat cut from a cow.

The process involves taking different types of cells, such as muscle and fat, and using bioreactors to ultimately transform them into portions of meat.

Scores of start-ups have entered the market in recent years, as awareness grows globally that meat production on an industrial scale is unsustainable.

Such companies have attracted some high-profile backers. They include actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who invested in Aleph Farms and Dutch firm Mosa Meat in September.

Confidence in the nascent industry follows the success in recent years of firms producing plant-based alternatives to meat, such as Beyond Meat. Their burgers now fill supermarket freezers, nearly a decade after launching its first product.

Didier Toubia, chief executive of Aleph Farms, believes his company’s thin cuts of beef could hit the market in 2022.

“This is the first product line which should be released around the end of next year, hopefully in the UAE,” he said.

Only Singapore has approved the sale of cultured meat so far, with start-ups in Abu Dhabi and elsewhere lobbying governments to establish their own regulations.

Although Israel may not be first in line, its business climate means the country already hosts numerous start-ups in the industry.

“When you talk in Israel about high tech and innovation … people listen to you,” said Levana Shifman, executive director of the Modern Agriculture Foundation, which promotes alternatives to traditional meat.

“They want to be part of it; they want to innovate,” she added.

While awaiting legal approval, developers are still working on moulding animal cells into delectable dishes.

“Those cells are responsible not only for the texture but also for the taste, flavour, for the cooking properties, the nutritional properties,” said Mr Toubia.

While beef is one of the more complex meats to recreate in a laboratory setting, chicken is considered simpler.

I think it’s going to be the way that we eat in 50 years
Mariana Lamas, Centre for Culinary Innovation, Canada

March saw the launch of The Chicken, a restaurant where diners could taste the latest products developed by Israeli start-up SuperMeat.

“The restaurant has a glass window that looks on to the manufacturing plant,” said Shir Friedman, SuperMeat’s head of operations.

About 10 new guests visit the restaurant once every two weeks and usually rush straight to the window.

“We teach them about the process, they’re very intrigued by it,” Ms Friedman said.

The menu changes as SuperMeat showcases its food free of charge, with dishes trialled so far including a crispy chicken burger and a chicken salad.

Ms Friedman reported positive feedback from diners and expected the company’s products will hit the market within 18 months.

But such forecasts may be too optimistic, said Mariana Lamas of the Centre for Culinary Innovation in Canada.

“We have seen a lot of missed launch dates,” said Ms Lamas, a research assistant at the centre in Edmonton’s Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.

“More realistically, I think it’s going to take about 10 years to have it readily available at grocery stores,” she said.

One of the main problems still to be overcome is making lab-made meat less expensive.

At Aleph Farms, Mr Toubia said an early prototype cost around $50 per portion when it was made more than two years ago. He declined to give a current or future price, saying it would likely take five years from launching a product until it costs the same as traditional meat.

Significant hurdles stand between the laboratory and supermarket shelves. But 80 per cent of consumers are open to cultured meat, a figure that is even higher among young people, a study published this year by the journal Foods found.

“Younger generations are growing up in a world where plant-based products are everywhere and we’re already talking about cultured meat, so for them it’s normal,” said Ms Lamas.

Survey participants in the UK and US showed striking acceptance of the new foods, with all ages predicting they would account for nearly half of their total meat intake in the future.

“I think it has a lot of potential,” said Ms Lamas, though meat lovers may have a while to wait.

“I think it’s going to be the way that we eat in 50 years.”

Updated: November 02, 2021, 3:42 AM