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Tech Meets “Meat”

Should we call it clean meat, fake meat, cultured meat, or genetic modification du jour? The idea seems absurd to some, fantastic to others, and unpalatable to those who’d rather the blood in their burger be real. I’m talking about lab-grown meat from the likes of Impossible Burger and Memphis Meats.

First, the technology underpinning this stuff: genome analytics allows scientists to turn genetic information into raw data. From this data comes information on a genome’s “meaning” — its function within the organism, how its function affects the organism as a whole, and therefore what it will express when the genetic information is passed on to offspring of the organism. Scientists can analyze genes and then modify them to exaggerate or limit certain aspects of their function, or they can isolate genes based on their function, and without modifying them they can use them in a variety of ways.

New Harvest contends that cultured meat doesn’t need genetic modification. Instead, scientists can extract stem cells from animals and use them to grow meat in the lab. Impossible Foods is doing something different. Animal cells don’t come into the equation. So how on Earth is it meat?

It’s not. A Silicon Valley startup, Impossible Foods uses heme and genetic modification to make a plant-based burger that imitates the texture, taste, juiciness, and smell of ground beef. Heme is a protein molecule you can find in any organism, and there’s a lot of it in animal muscle tissue. Through genome analytics, scientists have determined that the prevalence of heme is what gives meat its properties. There’s heme in blood to carry oxygen, and there’s heme in soy, which is what Impossible Foods uses.

Impossible Foods doesn’t even use soy plants, it uses the heme genes from soy plants and adds them to yeast. Then they ferment the yeast, isolate the heme, combine it with wheat protein, water, coconut oil, potato protein, “natural flavors,” vitamins, and some other stuff that’s hard to pronounce, and voila — genetically modified “burger” that bleed like it’s the real thing.

In November of 2017, Inc. did a profile of Memphis Meats. Memphis Meats is another tech company operating out of Silicon Valley, but instead of using genetic modification to make a plant-based burger, they’re using animal stem cells to grow meat in the lab. Memphis Meats’ argument against Impossible Burger is simple: people aren’t used to it and it will never replace real meat. The Impossible Burger will caramelize and brown when you grill it like a real burger, but the inside doesn’t have the same consistency as ground chuck. On a recent trip to Mendocino Farms in La Jolla, I discovered the Impossible Burger’s interior is more like pudding. But I’ll admit the flavor was very similar to hamburger.

Memphis Meats can potentially grow any kind of meat in the lab. It’s not hard to imagine Impossible Foods making a plant-based chicken breast, but it’s hard to imagine a piece of fake poultry that looks, tastes, and feels exactly like real chicken. When Memphis Meats’ products hit the shelves as soon as 2021, they won’t be imitation meat, they’ll be real meat products that the company produces in a lab instead of on a farm.

The question is why do we need any of these tech meats? There are several problems alternative meats should address. For one, America has a big problem with obesity, to the extent that 36 percent of adults are obese. Obesity is a result of consuming too many calories and not getting enough exercise. The Impossible Burger has 220 calories for every 3 ounce serving , while ground beef has 213 calories. So much for limiting calories and helping with obesity.

Another problem is antibiotics. A great deal of beef is pumped full of antibiotics, which is contributing to the rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Clean meat and plant-based meat has the advantage of containing no antibiotics. The hypothesis goes, the fewer antibiotics we use in meat, the fewer superbugs will emerge with resistance to antibiotics.

What’s more, the livestock industry generates about 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, which is more CO2 than we use for all forms of transportation, and because of a growing population, meat consumption is projected to nearly double by 2050. Even further, fish stocks are nearing decimation. Simply put, the current meat production and consumption system isn’t sustainable. We could create much less pollution by growing meat in labs and making it out of genetically modified plant molecules.

Memphis Meats isn’t on the shelves yet so it’s hard to critique, but Impossible Burger is not without its detractors. Joanna Blythman, a “renowned investigator of the unpronounceable ingredients in food,” says the burger’s ingredients are “all signifiers of low-grade, ultra-processed food,” while the soy heme (leghemoglobin) is “a novel ingredient that has no proven track record of safety.” That scares me a little because I ate an Impossible Burger, but I hope just one won’t hurt.

Blythman’s ultimate argument is that non-engineered, organic meat products don’t hurt the environment and are safe and healthy for human consumption. But according to Inc.’s Jeff Bercovici, the market for expensive, sustainably produced meat is tiny compared with the overall meat market. “Only a radical break with the past will prevent doubling down on practices such as high-density feedlots and vertical chicken farms,” Bercovici says.

Impossible Burger and Memphis Meats are trying to engineer this radical break with the past. For my part, I’d prefer to fork out the extra cash to pay small farms to put sustainably and ethically raised meat on my fork. But yes, once Memphis Meats’ lab-steaks hit the shelves, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with giving them a try.

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