Cultured meat start-up Mosa Meat began with the innovation of Chief Scientific Officer Professor Mark Post, who introduced the world’s first “lab-grown burger” in 2013. At the time, the cultured-meat burger cost a whopping €250,000 to make, and was funded by Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google. From there, Mosa Meat was launched out of Maastricht University to expand on Post’s research.
Today Mosa Meat is working to commercialize and scale up its cultured meat, with plans to have its products in supermarkets in the next 2-3 years. The average person can’t afford to pay €250,000 for a burger, so the company expects to bring the price down to €9, which is still relatively high when compared to traditional meat. Curious to find out more, we put our questions to Beckie Calder-Flynn, Operations Coordinator, to learn about Mosa Meat’s technological process, greenhouse emissions, and plans for the future.
Why are you passionate about developing cell-based meat?
The reason Mosa Meat was created came from our founder Professor Mark Post’s motivation was to find a new method to make real meat to feed our fast-growing population in a sustainable, healthy and animal-friendly way. He created the world’s first cultured meat hamburger in 2013, and the company was created following its launch to commercialize cultured meat (also known as clean meat) and bring it to plates everywhere.
Our mission is to revolutionize the way meat is made. Specifically, we’re working to commercialize cultured meat and bring it to the mass market so that we can feed our growing population in a sustainable, healthy and animal-friendly way. We believe this is important, and necessary, for two major reasons: Cultured meat could solve the coming food crisis, and help combat climate change. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that the demand for meat is going to increase by 70% by 2050, and current production methods are not sustainable. If we want to continue to eat meat, we need a more efficient production method. Furthermore, livestock contributes significantly to global warming through unchecked releases of methane, a greenhouse gas 20-30 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a heat-trapping gas. It is projected that cultured meat will generate 96% lower greenhouse gas emissions, helping us avoid the disastrous consequences of climate change.
Can you tell us a bit about the process and technology Mosa Meat is using to create clean meat?
The first step is to take some cells from an animal, such as a cow if we’re making beef, which is done with a biopsy under anaesthesia by a vet. The cells are fed nutrients and natural growth factors, and allowed to proliferate just as they would inside an animal. They proliferate until we get trillions of cells from a small sample. This growth takes place in a bioreactor, which looks similar to the bioreactors that beer is fermented in. When we want the cells to differentiate into muscle cells, we simply stop feeding them growth factors, and they differentiate naturally. The cells are then placed in a gel that is 99% water, which helps the cells form the shape of muscle fibers. The muscle fibers contract naturally, causing them to get larger. The cells actually form the tissue structure themselves through self organization. They first merge into large, primitive muscle fibers (called “myotubes”), and then they spontaneously align and start to contract, thus forming a firm muscle fiber. When thousands of muscle fibers are layered together we get what we started with – meat. The meat can then be processed using standard food technologies – for example, by putting the meat through a grinder to make ground beef. Ground beef is the current product we are working on.
Cell culture, in particular of mammalian cells that need to grow while being attached to a surface, is typically done in Petri dishes or culture flasks. These have a poor surface-to-volume ratio and cannot easily be scaled up. We use microcarriers and bioreactions to help with this. The bioreactor contains medium which is mixed by automated stirring. Since one starts with a small amount of cells, the culture begins in a flask and moves up from there to a small bioreactor and then to a larger bioreactor. The largest bioreactors are 25,000 liters in volume and large enough to produce a year’s supply of meat for 10,000 people. Because cell growth is exponential, it takes 10 weeks to produce one quarter pound hamburger, but only about 12 weeks to produce 100,000 hamburgers.
Since Professor Mark Post, Mosa’s Chief Scientific Officer, first introduced a cell-based burger in 2013, how has the product or process changed?
In the past few years we’ve made significant scientific breakthroughs, and brought the price of our meat down considerably. We’re now focused on scaling up the production process, and getting our first products on the market in the next 2-3 years.
We have focused on a few main areas:
- We added fat tissue, which is important for taste and texture. This is an important part of making the product like the ground beef people currently know and consume.
- We developed a culture medium that is free of fetal bovine serum (FBS). This is really important from a cost perspective given serum comprises 80% of the production cost (and of course is also crucial from an animal welfare perspective). FBS is unsustainable given that cultured meat will reduce the herd of cows worldwide, and FBS is derived from the fetuses of slaughtered cows (which won’t end up existing if we shifted to cultured meat and a smaller global herd), but also it doesn’t comply with our animal welfare standards.
- We improved our meat’s protein content, most notably changing culture conditions to allow the cells to produce more myoglobin, which gives meat its red color. Myoglobin is a protein made by muscle cells and provides oxygen transport within the cell. Very similar to haemoglobin in blood, myoglobin provides the red color to meat (as opposed to blood). Myoglobin is also the source of haem iron in meat and likely adds to its taste.
- We designed a bio-production process that can be scaled to industrial volume. Bringing the price down and commercializing our product means we need to have equipment that can create our meat at a a large scale, so that’s really important for us to hit our goals for bringing our product to market.
We have moved into a new and bigger lab which is helping us work on these things and give our scientists the space they need.
- We are working on getting regulatory approval for our products which will allow them to be sold in a handful of restaurants and then to the public. These things I mentioned all lead to this.
How do the greenhouse gas emissions from your products compare to the emissions from traditional meat? Can you share some numbers with us?
Because we haven’t up-scaled our production yet to the efficiency that we will producing our products for consumers, we haven’t undertaken a lifecycle analysis of our product yet (but we intend to). However, I can provide you with a more general answer:
Livestock contributes 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, livestock production releases methane, a greenhouse gas that is 20-30 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a heat-trapping gas. Global meat demand is set to increase by 70% by 2050, and this will significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions if we continue to produce meat using livestock. Beyond climate change, there is also evidence that cultured meat will benefit the environment by reducing the amount of land and water used in production. Conventional meat production uses huge quantities of land and water. This negatively impacts the environment in numerous ways. For example, large parts of the Amazon rainforest have already been cleared to make way for cattle feed. At current rates of deforestation, rainforests may have vanished entirely in 100 years, causing drastic loss of biodiversity and the loss of a significant carbon sink.
A life cycle analysis published in Environmental Science and Technology confirms large reductions in the use of energy in the production of cultured meat compared to obtaining meat through livestock, and estimates a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of up to 96%. Therefore, switching to cultured meat could have a significant impact on total greenhouse gas emissions, and on mitigating climate change. On the other hand, according to the life cycle analysis, cultured meat production will require 99% less land (and up to 96% less water), making it possible to return cleared forests to their wild state.
Now there are a number of life cycle analyses that have been done, and the environmental impact they suggest all depends on their methods of analysis, and we are keeping up with the science. For example, a recent study in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems said that in all the scenarios, even the worst one they modeled, clean meat had a lower environmental impact for at least the next 100 years, if not up to 800 years or longer. This also doesn’t account for when production systems are industrialized and far more efficient than they are now.
Other sources have said it is still uncertain what the environmental burden (or lack of) might be. Either way, we have to look at different scenarios and we can’t be entirely sure until we actually do it. Theoretically it should because it is a more efficient process, even thinking about not wasting the whole animal just for a bit of meat and throwing away the head and legs highlights the current inefficiency that will be improved.
How much does your cell-based meat cost in comparison with today’s average meat? How are you working to bring the cost down?
As with any technology, initial prices tend to be extremely high until the product is commercialized, production is made efficient, and then products are sold en masse. For us, we are currently working on up-scaling our equipment so that we can produce large quantities quickly and efficiently. The larger the scale you produce at, the cheaper the cost. We estimate that commercialization will bring the price of a burger down to €9, compared with the €250,000 it cost to make the first burger. The cost of a hamburger in the supermarket is around €1, and we expect that with further efficiency improvements we will be able to bring the price down to this level over the next decade. Ultimately, cultured meat should be cheaper than conventional meat given its production is more efficient. Reasons for this include eliminating the cost of raising, transporting, slaughtering, and processing huge numbers of animals, and only requiring a small number of animals to provide us with sample cells (for example, one cell sample can create up to 10,000kg of cultured meat. Our estimates suggest that at that rate we would only need 150 cows to satisfy the world’s current meat demand); no costs from requiring antibiotics for the animals, and very little costs of other requirements like land use and animal feed because of the very small number of donor animals required. Another efficiency is that by producing cultured meat, we only create the meat that we need, and there isn’t any waste (both wasted energy inputs and physical waste) compared with traditional meat production where only the desirable parts of the animal are used and the rest is discarded. Once products hit the market, prices may fall further in order to compete with existing products and to reflect consumer demand.
What are your target markets?
Anyone who wants to eat sustainable, ethically-produced, healthy meat. Because our meat is real animal tissues, our product would not be suitable for people who are strictly vegetarian or vegan. However, many people who are vegetarian or vegan do not object to meat in and of itself, but rather the ethical problems associated with its production. As cultured meat does not require the inhumane treatment or slaughter of any animals, nor does it have the same environmental impacts as livestock meat, it may be acceptable to many vegetarians and vegans. Because many people will not want to become vegetarian or vegan, especially given plant-based substitutes will never be exactly the same as meat in taste and texture, we think we need to look at every possible avenue of replacing livestock, including cultured meat. Our real goal is to provide sustainable and animal-friendly meat for the majority who currently eat meat, as this will have the greatest effect in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, environmental damage and animal suffering.
What are some of the biggest obstacles facing Mosa Meat today?
We are working on the final scientific adjustments before we begin to up-scale production, and then go through the regulatory process so that we can bring our product to market. Up-scaling production will be one of the biggest obstacles we still have to face, as producing our product in large quantities at a lower cost will require bigger and more efficient machinery
One of the challenges that we have overcome is creating a growth serum that doesn’t use fetal bovine serum, which we are currently still optimizing. We do not use fetal bone serum. We have developed serum-free medium, which we are now optimizing. It was important to eliminate FBS from the production process. For one, it is inherently unsustainable given that cultured meat will reduce the herd of cows worldwide, and FBS is derived from the fetuses of slaughtered cows. In addition, obtaining FBS from unborn calves is incompatible with our animal welfare beliefs.
One disadvantage of our system is that we are currently only about to product ground beef products. Creating the 3D scaffold and structure needed for things like steak is very complex, and not something we have focused on yet. Given the scientific and economic challenges involved, we decided to focus on one type of meat initially. We chose beef because cattle are the least efficient links in food production. They convert only 15% of edible food crop into meat we can eat (pigs are twice as efficient and chickens are four times as efficient). This means that cows use the most resources, and have the greatest impact on the environment. They also generate the most greenhouse gas emissions. In future, we will be working on other species. While millions of cows are slaughtered each year, even more chickens and pigs are killed. From an animal welfare perspective in particular, we think it is therefore very important to change the way we produce chicken and pork. Our technology should allow for many different types of meat to be made in future.
How did you source your funding as a startup? Which VCs or companies have invested in Mosa?
We are based at Maastricht University because that’s where our chief science officer, Prof. Mark Post, did all his work to create the world’s first cultured hamburger in 2013. This was where he was based and had the resources to do so, and his work was also funded by Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google. After the release, Mark created Mosa Meat in order to begin further developing and up-scaling his techniques so that cultured meat would be able to be made into a product and taken to market. We have had support from a number of groups, including Brightlands, Merck Ventures, Bell Food Group, and Glass Wall Syndicate just to name a few.
Where do you see Mosa Meat in the next five years?
All going to plan, our goal is to bring our product to market in 2021. That means that by 2024, our vision would be to see Mosa Meat products on supermarket shelves, and that we would be informing consumers about the benefits of cultured meat. We want to revolutionize the way meat is made, and we think in 5 years that mission will be a reality.
All images courtesy of Mosa Meat