Imagine going into your favourite restaurant to order a tiger stew or an elephant steak.
It might seem a far-fetched notion, straight from the pages of a science-fiction novel, but a new initiative by Primeval Foods is hoping to offer a whole new range of foods on our plates.
The London company is creating exotic culinary delicacies, from lion and giraffe burgers to zebra and tiger fillets.
Far from being a barbaric enterprise targeting endangered species or profiting from poaching, the meat is cultured from animal cells and grown in labs.
It is the brainchild of vegan entrepreneur Yilmaz Bora, who wanted to find an answer to the impact the food industry is having on the world’s climate crisis and to look at ways to protect endangered species.
“I had a venture capital fund in London, Ace Ventures. We were investing in plant-based, vegan start-ups, but at one point, I started to think that this wasn’t helping any animals, so we had to do something different,” he told The National.
“We have to do something bold because another almond milk company will not make people vegan or help us save the planet; it’s just monetising the vegan community.
“So I came up with this idea that has fantastic potential for helping animals and the planet and allows us to explore the best foods of the future.
“Today, we consume beef, chicken, fish and pork, not because they are the tastiest, healthiest or most nutritious species; they are just the easiest to domesticate. But now we can discover what is beyond domestication through technology.”
Mr Bora set up Primeval Foods through his venture capital company, Ace Ventures, which is named after his pet French bulldog, Ace, who was the inspiration for him becoming a vegan three years ago.
The company is aiming to create foods that “carnivores will crave”.
“It is possible to cultivate any animal on Earth. We're working on big cats, elephants, giraffes and zebras,” he said.
“We want to focus on exotic and wildness and novelty; those are the kinds of meats that are impossible to eat without the cultivated meat method.
“Cultured meat isn’t a plant-based substitute; it is exactly the same as non-cultivated meat, but instead of slaughtering a whole animal, we produce the meat by growing animal cells.”
Cultured meat is produced in a lab using cells from animals
Without harming the animals, Primeval Foods uses a cell sample from the animal to grow cultivated meat in a laboratory.
It feeds the cells with essential macronutrients (amino acids, carbohydrates, fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) to make them grow.
The company says the process doesn’t use growth hormones, antibiotics and it is not genetically modified.
“Cultivating meat is similar to growing plants from cuttings in a greenhouse, which provides warmth, fertile soil, water, and nutrients,” Mr Bora said.
“This new method of meat production enables the natural process of cell growth but in a more efficient environment. The result is an abundance of cultivated meat, identical to conventional meat at the cellular level, but free of pathogens and other contaminants.
“The process starts with taking a small sample from the animal. From a small sample of animal cells, we can grow cultivated meat.
“In conventional animal farming, cell growth occurs in animals, but we can grow the same cells in what is known as a cultivator.
“The cultivator facilitates the same biological process that happens inside an animal by providing warmth and the basic elements needed to build muscle or fat: water, proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals.”
Cultured meat has a lower environmental impact
A study by the University of Oxford revealed that cultured meat could be produced with up to 96 per cent lower greenhouse-gas emissions, 45 per cent less energy, 99 per cent lower land use, and 96 per cent lower water use than conventional meat.
During her work at Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, Hanna Tuomisto led research showing the benefits of cultured meat in combating climate change.
"What our study found was that the environmental impacts of cultured meat could be substantially lower than those of meat produced in the conventional way," she said.
"‘We are not saying that we could, or would necessarily want to, replace conventional meat with its cultured counterpart right now. However, our research shows that cultured meat could be part of the solution to feeding the world’s growing population and, at the same time, cutting emissions and saving energy and water.
"Simply put, cultured meat is, potentially, a much more efficient and environmentally friendly way of putting meat on the table."
Last week, research published by Florian Humpenoder, a sustainability scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, showed that replacing only 20 per cent of global beef consumption with a meat substitute within the next 30 years could halve deforestation and the carbon emissions associated with it.
The meat and dairy industry is estimated to account for 18 per cent of all greenhouse-gas emissions — greater than all the world’s transport systems combined.
Scientists believe cultured meat will taste the same
Despite being created in a lab, Mr Bora says the cultured meat will taste the same as conventional meat.
“Cultivated meat looks, tastes, and cooks the same as the conventional one,” he said. “Our cultivated lion meat tastes like lion, because it is cultivated from lion.
“The cells and tissues that form the animals grow the same way, except they grow outside the animal. It's a copy and paste of the taste without slaughtering the animal.
"It only takes a few weeks. It is ridiculously efficient compared with traditional animal agriculture."
He dismissed concerns that the initiative will lead to the animals being illegally hunted.
“Cultured meat isn’t a plant-based substitute, it is exactly the same as non-cultivated meat,” he said.
How soon could we be eating tiger T-bone and lion steaks?
There is still one major stumbling block before diners can look forward to a novel steak — getting countries to give it regulatory approval.
Currently, only Singapore allows cultivated meats to be sold commercially.
It became the first country in the world to approve cultured meat for sale in December 2020.
Despite Primeval Foods’ ambitions to supply exotic meats in the UK, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has not yet received any applications for regulatory approval.
“Cultivated meat is not allowed in the UK,” the FSA told The National.
“Firms have to apply to us for permission to supply particular products. We carry out risk assessments and then advise ministers on our findings. To be able to supply them in the UK, there would need to be a change in the legislation.”
About 30 businesses are believed to be developing cultured meat products worldwide ― four are based in the UK. The products being developed include meats, fish, seafood and pet food.
Prof Robin May, FSA chief scientific adviser, said the FSA is working closely to look at innovative new products.
“Our priority is to protect consumer interests by ensuring food is safe and what it says it is through a robust scientific process," he told The National.
"We recognise the potential of alternative proteins for improving dietary health and as part of a sustainable food system.
"The main hurdles to overcome are scaled production, costs and how closely the end-product resembles that which it would replace.
"Early products will likely be minced or reconstituted products (such as minced beef or chicken nuggets) due to the complexity of forming traditional meat cuts. Developers will need to overcome consumer scepticism of cultured meats and address the taste issue, as well as prove the safety case as novel foods.
"The FSA is a hub of world class science and is open for business when it comes to the future of safe and sustainable food."
Dr Russ Tucker, who runs Ivy Farm Technologies, an Oxford University spinout, is hoping to produce cultured sausages from 2023.
“If you look at the world around us, the way we currently produce and consume food is unsustainable," Dr Tucker said.
Mr Bora is banking on the world accepting the concept.
"Already nearly half the worldwide harvest is required to feed livestock and that’s only going to go up. Cultured meat is the silver bullet. Through cutting-edge technology, we can provide real, high-quality meat while saving the planet,” he said.
Mr Bora hopes the US will approve the sale of cultured meat shortly and that countries such as the UAE will support its regulation in the future.
"It's not available to buy our products yet as only Singapore has approved the commercial sale of cultivated meat," he said.
"But, hopefully, the US will regulate and approve the sale of cultivated meat at the end of the year.
"It's also an opportunity for visionary and innovative countries like the UAE to have an early seat in the market. I would love to be able to host a tasting event in Dubai in the future."
Is there an appetite for exotic meats?
Mr Bora said he has been inundated with interest about the initiative.
“We're having amazingly positive feedback,” he said.
“Our waiting list has exploded and we get tonnes of emails every day from fans, investors and people who are willing to work for us. This is probably the first product ever that succeeded in attracting heavy meat eaters, climate deniers, climate fighters and vegans.”
Research by the UK’s FSA discovered that a third of UK consumers would try cultured meat, and one in three people were satisfied it is safe.
“Most commonly, respondents expressed willingness to try lab-grown meat for environmental or sustainability reasons and for animal welfare reasons,” it said.
“In terms of safety, 3 in 10 reported they would be willing to try lab-grown meat because they think it’s safe to eat, while a quarter of respondents were willing to try because they trust that it’s properly regulated.”
Prof May said the FSA is working with the industry.
“This important survey highlights that, while many consumers are considering trying alternative proteins, they will quite rightly only do so if they are confident that these products are safe and properly regulated," he said.
“Consequently, we are working closely with businesses and trade bodies to ensure they make effective use of the FSA's existing regulatory framework, so that consumers can benefit from innovative food products while still having full confidence in their safety.”