While cell-based clean meat has surged in popularity, the process is not without its flaws. For the most part, the end product is still too expensive, and many companies are dependent on Fetal Calf Serum (FCS) as a supplement needed to culture muscle cells. This serum is not only very expensive, but has raised questions regarding quality and animal welfare practices, which in turn calls into question the “cleanliness” of the meat.
Turkey-based startup Biftek.co recognizes the flaws in today’s clean meat movement and wants to offer up technology for companies around the world to improve it. The startup has developed a plant-based culture medium supplement to replace FCS in the process of culturing muscle stem cells, which will bring the cost of the end product down as well.
We put our questions to Erdem Erikçi, Chief Technical Officer at Biftek.co, to learn more about the startup’s vision for clean meat. He discusses its technological processes, the current shortcomings of cultivated meat, and how the company is working to improve the process.
What was the initial inspiration for launching Biftek.co?
I have been working on agtech for a while. Since I have started to read about agriculture I have realized that agriculture and husbandry do not necessarily involve environmentally friendly production methods. In fact, the amount of water used, greenhouse gas emitted and land used by the sector is significant. It is one of the major contributors to global warming, forest degradation, and reduction in biological diversity. The climate crisis cannot be properly solved without mitigating the impact of agriculture and husbandry on nature. Moreover, the fact is that animals are produced and mostly forced to suffer to satisfy our appetite for animal products. Although they have highly developed brains, which creates consciousness like ours, we prefer to ignore their pain. We just wanted to do something.
Can you tell us a bit about the specific process and technology Biftek is using to create cell-based meat?
Cell-based clean meat (cultivated meat) production is expensive mainly because of the high cost of growth supplements. Cells need to be supplied with growth and survival factors that mediate cell proliferation. Current cell culture setups use Fetal Calf Serum (FCS) as the source of the factors. However, FCS is a very expensive animal product. Cultivated meat cannot be clean enough and feasible unless an alternative supplement formulation is invented. We have been working on the design of supplement formulations that could replace FCS from cultivated meat incubators and eventually decrease the cost of production.
Is there any tech that you believe still needs to be invented to improve the processes?
Cells secrete metabolic waste into the medium that they live in. In a mammalian body, the secreted waste is cleaned from the environment by the action of the liver and kidneys. However, in a regular culture setup, cells literally swim in their own waste. Increasing concentration of wastes in the medium creates a toxic effect which inhibits the cell growth. The medium loses its life supporting feature long before the nutrients are consumed. Replacement of the entire medium is an option to restore the nutrient, pH, and osmotic balance, however, it is not feasible at large scales such as cultivated meat production lines. Therefore, technologies that can remove the waste product from the growth medium is crucial to establish a feasible cultivated meat production method.
Meat comes in various shapes, such as flank, strip, ribeye, or as mincemeat. People prefer the meat type according to their taste as well as their budget. The success of the clean meat sector depends on the size of the market that it can address. Growing the cells in a bioreactor and then harvesting them provides mincemeat-like biomass. However, there will be consumers who will enjoy steak. Therefore, technologies that can give some 3D shape to the cultivated meat will be required.
How do the greenhouse gas emissions from your products compare to the emissions from traditional meat?
Scaling up the production level, which has not been achieved yet, will have a great impact on emission values. However, production is still at small scale. Therefore, it is not possible to answer this question precisely unless direct measurements are performed. Nevertheless, there are studies claiming that cultivated meat production will yield 78-96% less greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional methods.
On a life cycle analysis, how much CO2 and resources does your product need compared to the animal alternative?
The exact analysis can be performed when the serial production starts. However, we anticipate that the energy needed will be 7-45% less, 99% less land will be occupied, 81-96% less water will be consumed and 78-96% less greenhouse gases will be emitted.
How much does your clean meat cost in comparison with conventional meat? How are you working to bring the cost down?
The major cost item in cultivated meat production line is the consumables such as the growth medium and the supplement (FCS). The supplement has the biggest share in the expenses, which is approximately 80%. We are focused on replacing FCS with alternative formulations to bring the cost down. On the other hand, the amount of basal medium that needs to be consumed should be brought down significantly by media recycling methods. There are promising dialysis systems that can remove toxic metabolites from the medium while retaining 85% of growth factors. If the technological developments can achieve a reduction in the amount and price of growth medium, we can cultivate a kilogram of bovine meat for $13.
What are your target markets?
We cultivate bovine meat for the health and environment conscious high-end protein market. Besides that, we aim to sell our medium supplement formulation to meat cultivator companies around the world.
How did you source your funding as a startup? Which VCs or companies have invested in Biftek?
We have received a grant from Turkish governmental funds supporting SMEs. We are in contact with numerous national and international VCs who are interested in our work. We continue the negotiations.
What are some of the biggest obstacles facing clean meat today? Where do you see it in five years?
The biggest obstacle that cultivated meat faces today is the cost of the cell culture medium and the supplements. The use of the cell culture medium must be much more efficient than today’s cell culture setups and the prices must be several orders of magnitude lower than current bench-scale costs. There are many aspects that needs to be optimized in the production line of the cultivated meat, however significant achievements are achievable without technological moonshots. Therefore, it is very likely that the price of cultivated meat on the shelves will not be higher than conventional meat in five years. Moreover, even an omnivorous diet will be as sustainable and animal friendly as possible.