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Could a man-made sausage save the world?

17 August 2021

It sounds like science fiction, but can we now make sausages, burgers and meatballs with ‘no-kill’ meat created in a laboratory? Jonathan Margolis investigates the wacky new world of meat alternatives that could help save the planet.

An Ivy Farm sausage presented in a hot dog bap

There’s a scientific development being worked on around the world and expected to be in shops within three years.

Unlike vegan meat alternatives, this actually is meat, but it’s being developed in laboratories and will be manufactured for mass consumption in huge bioreactors. It’s called cultured, or clean, meat, and tonnes of it can be grown from a tiny sample of real animal tissue – as little as one cell – removed humanely under anaesthetic.

In a process described as tissue engineering, the original piece is fed nutrients and expands into edible quantities of meat with both muscle and fat in four to six weeks. It should be noted that although it involves no killing or trauma to animals, cultured meat is not considered acceptable by vegans, nor by a lot of vegetarians.

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As Dr Russ Tucker, founder of British cultured meat start-up Ivy Farm Technologies, puts it, ‘This is not a simulation. It’s the real thing. It’s real meat with a different process. We make muscle and fat separately and combine that into a mince. And from that, you can make sausages, meatballs, burgers, bolognese – whatever you like.’

But why might I choose it above traditional meat? The answer lies in my attitude to eating meat. Love it as I do, real meat bothers me for three reasons. I’m uncomfortable about animal welfare and the slaughtering process; I’m troubled by the health aspects of eating too much meat; and I am worried about animal agriculture’s sizeable contribution to climate change, said to be 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions, greater than all the world’s transport.

A longer version of this article appeared in the September 2021 issue of Saga Magazine: subscribe today

So-called ‘clean’ meat like Dr Tucker’s could within a decade or two be a huge breakthrough for both assuaging the guilt of meat-eaters and helping to save the planet. Estimates of how much meat will be cultured in the near-ish future range from 10% to a third, which should have a beneficial effect on carbon in the atmosphere. (One report suggested lab-pork could cut greenhouse gas emissions by 52% and lab[1]beef by up to 92%.)

Companies pioneering cultured meat, mostly in the States, the Netherlands, Israel and the UK, all aim to manufacture it with as close as possible to zero energy and water usage. Its enormous potential to change the face of food production and cut global warming was highlighted in this summer’s National Food Strategy drawn up by Henry Dimbleby. He said the UK must do more to encourage start-ups such as Dr Tucker’s and urged the Government to put £50 million into building facilities for companies investigating alternative proteins – whether plant or lab meat – plus start-up grants.

Such moves could create 10,000 UK jobs and position us as a global leader in the race to find new proteins, but he warned, ‘If we do not act soon, we will end up as net importers of these products, losing out on green jobs.’

 There are also possible health benefits with lab meat. It is likely that cultured meat will eliminate intestinal pathogens in animals such as E.coli and salmonella. It should also be free of antibiotics.

Dr Tucker, who is from a family of butchers and says he has no wish to destroy livestock meat, says nonetheless this will be no small-scale experiment. ‘We hope by 2025 to be making 12,000 tonnes of meat, which would save 170,000 pigs. We’re focused on pork right now, but the process will work for beef and chicken.’

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He aims to be the first UK producer and have sausages on sale by 2023. Few knew about cultured meat until a few months ago, when its sale was permitted for the first time, in Singapore. Chicken pieces from a US company, Eat Just, which grows it from a single original cell, are being offered to restaurants. ‘It tastes like chicken because it is,’ says Eat Just’s website, but the new Frankenmeat (which is surely what the tabloids will call it) is currently expensive to produce, reportedly around £12 for a small plate of nuggets in the first Singapore restaurants to offer it.

Whether cultured meat, when it can be produced more cheaply, will be a ‘premium’ product in the supermarket ranges, or an economy product, is much debated in the industry. For the moment, the fact that shops like Rudy’s style themselves as butchers and create products that emulate meat suggests we are wired to regard meat as the ideal food; there’s no seeming demand for meat that looks like vegetable. Cultured and plant meat, some say, is the fake fur of food. But it could go either way, depending on whether we see ‘real’ meat as more desirable or less than plant or Frankenmeat.

The other big question that applies to both vegan butchery and cultured meat is, who is it designed for? For vegans and vegetarians who want to enjoy forbidden foods? Or uneasy meat-eaters like me? It could be argued that there are hundreds of thousands of delicious foods to make with plant material only, so why make replica foods?

‘I’d much rather a veggie burger and see the bits of vegetable,’ says Dr Samantha Calvert of The Vegan Society. ‘I’ve never wanted to replicate meat. However, plenty of vegans do like the taste and texture of meat but just don’t want to harm the environment or animals.’

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Dr Neil Stephens, a Brunel University sociologist who has studied the cultured meat phenomenon for more than a decade, is sure buyers will be meat-eaters. ‘It works when huge numbers of people stop eating livestock meat,’ he says. ‘The logic is that, some time in the future, you produce something that is so similar to meat, people will eat it without having to opt into the moral choice of thinking, “I want to save animals.” They will just think, “This is a great piece of meat.”’

Dr Tucker of Ivy Farm says, ‘We call our audience the carni-conscious. Our research tells us that a lot of people are following a flexitarian diet, where they eat some meat but are looking for alternatives. ‘We’re not trying to shut down the farming industry or the butcher industry. We’re trying to provide an alternative to intensive farming and to low-quality processed meat. ‘We want people to have great quality meat, without gristly bits, to trust and enjoy. And to let good farming really flourish in parallel with us.’

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.