Sunday, March 23, 2014

Artificial Meat Is Gaining Attention in China

The 14th 2014 Inner Mongolia International Agriculture Exhibition from March 16 to 19 attracted 240 companies from U.S., France, Italy, South Korea, among other countries, and from 26 provinces within China.
The men-made meat in exhibition booths not only includes usual forms as seen in U.S. markets, but also has unique forms and looks catering to the local meat dishes. The popularity of artificial meat has been gradually increasing in China—a quick web search online returns many recipes for it and this in turn will help it gain more attention.

The men-made meat popular in this exhibition is considered to be meat analogue products, also known as imitation meat, made out of textured vegetable protein (TVP). The most common ones are soy-based or gluten-based, with centuries of practice in many parts of the world. The new comer into the artificial meat world is In vitro meat, growing in a laboratory, which has the promise to be the meat for the future.

The first ever test-tube meat patty, grown by Dr. Mark Post of Maastricht University of the Netherlands, met the press on Aug. 5, 2013. With a price tag of more than $330,000 US for its 140 gram weight, it is also known as google burger, because Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, was one of the sponsors. The patty was concluded to have the taste of meat though not as juicy, and was considered as a good start for the in vitro meat future.

Cultured muscle cells, growing for three months which is faster than a cow, with the help of powdered egg for binding and beetroot juice and saffron for coloring, formed this historic patty. Dr. Post started with stem cells harvested from two live cows then multiplied the cells to form “myotubes” in a petri dish, which were growing on plant-derived nutrients. The myotube grew to wrap around the central hub made of gel in the dish and increased volume through contraction and relaxation under electrical stimulation, uniting into a ring of muscle tissue. The historic patty used 20,000 rings, each of which was cut to create a strand.

The lack of juiciness in this piece of cultured meat is caused by the absence of fat cells, which present much greater difficulties to culture. A steak like cultured meat would also require growing the cells in three dimensions and delivering nutrients deep inside the tissue, another challenge for researchers. For Chinese people who cannot get satisfied with the soy-based imitation meet, the further development of in vitro meat is on the attention radar for authentic meaty tastiness.

These technical challenges to improve the taste of test-tube meat are well worth the efforts. A single sample of stem cells could produce 20,000 tons of muscle cells, enough to make 175 million quarter-pounders which currently require 440,000 cattle to be slaughtered. The possibility to have sufficient meat supply without the current healthy, environmental and ethical implications from the livestock industry is to be welcomed.

Diseases from domestic animals make more and more headlines and cause increasing concerns. Food safety is on the mind of people in many parts of the world but it weights particularly heavy on people in China, with a history of food scandals and a prevailing distrust of the food quality monitoring agencies. The laboratory growing meat may rid the worries of disease and hormones associated with real meat.

Another benefit on the account of health is that the test-tube meat can be customized to be healthier than the real thing. Dr. Post gave the example of boosting the levels of polyunsaturated fats.

Worldwide, meat uses approximately a third of crop land, water and grain but only provides one third of the protein and a sixth of the calorific intake. The meat consumption of the world is on track to double by 2050 and the stress from such demand on the environment is especially worrying in the changing climate. Greenhouse gas, from animal digestive tracts and land conversions from jungle and forest to pasture land, accounts for 8 percent to 18 percent of all greenhouse-gas emissions.

The fake meat means the ethical treatment of animals would no longer be an issue. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) actually posted a $1 million US prize for any scientist who can grow an in vitro chicken. On March 4, PETA announced it abandoned the effort as the science is not close to such a goal but said it was pleased with the progress made so far. Professor Carolynn Smith at Australia’s Macquarie University wanted the chicken rearing in factory-farming to be re-examined, as the birds are capable of displaying reasoning, deception, empathy and can outsmart a human toddler on some measures. Caged birds show disturbing behavior such as cannibalism.

Artificial meat gaining attention in China, one the fastest growing meat market, is encouraging for the further development of this industry. The in vitro meat technique Dr. Post demonstrated last year is not ready for commercial use but can be used in trails. Dr. Post said one of the purposes of his historic patty is to show test-tube meat can be realistic enough and thus draw serious attention to this industry. Besides the health, environment and ethics gains the artificial meat can bring, one additional benefit for meat fabrication is the ability to produce the best taste meat for consumption, instead of only eating meat from animals that are easy to keep.

By Tina Zhang

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