TOKYO -- While plant-based meat substitutes have drawn much global attention as a way to combat food shortages and protect the environment, researchers in Japan have taken the first steps toward creating cultured meat that could wind up on your grill someday.
Last year, the University of Tokyo unveiled the world's first lab-grown meat meant to mimic steak. Measuring just 10 mm x 8 mm x 7 mm, it is a long way from a juicy porterhouse. But its developers see a lot of potential.
Japan's Nissin Foods Holdings, best known for its instant ramen, is working with the university and others to establish the basic technology to create larger pieces of lab-grown steak by the end of fiscal 2024.
Although most meat substitutes are made from soy and other plant-based products, in 2013 Mark Post, a professor at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, created the world's first beef burger from lab-grown meat. So far, however, high costs have kept cultured meat out of supermarkets.
Cultured meat is made by growing and fusing together bovine muscle cells. But the process is tricky: If the direction of the cells is random, the end product can only be made into mincemeat. To mimic actual cuts of meat, the muscle fibers need to line up in one direction.
"It is important to [be able to] make whole cuts because that is how most people consume meat," said Nissin Foods' Futoshi Nakamura, who is working with University of Tokyo professor Shoji Takeuchi to develop cultured meat.
"It was good to team up with Nissin, which has expertise in making food products. We cannot make cultured meat by ourselves," said Takeuchi, who created the world's first steak meat in his laboratory.
To recreate the texture of steak, developing the proper muscle fibers is key. University researchers and Nissin have devised a method that uses thin-film myoblasts -- precursor cells that form skeletal muscle. These cells are assembled into modules made by pouring liquid containing muscle cells and collagen gel into molds with evenly spaced slits. The modules are then stacked in layers and arranged to allow nutrients to seep deep inside the meat.
The team created a piece of meat shaped like diced steak by stacking 42 modules together and culturing them for about a week. But the meat grown in the lab does not look like what you buy at the butcher shop. Because it lacks blood vessels and fat, meat made from cultured muscle fibers is white; it needs red food coloring to make it look real. The taste also differs from that of natural beef.
For cultured meat to work as a commercial product, the tiny morsels grown in the lab so far will not suffice. Nissin aims to produce a piece of meat measuring 7 cm x 7 cm x 2 cm by the end of fiscal 2024. At the moment, lab-grown beef makes the finest Kobe cuts look like a bargain. The burger grown in the Netherlands cost roughly $300,000 to produce. The process will need to be much cheaper if anyone is ever to sink their teeth into cultured meat.
And even if the cost comes down, it is unclear whether consumers will be keen. A November 2019 survey by Hirosaki University in Aomori Prefecture found that only 27% of respondents willing to try cultured meat. The share rose to 50% when respondents were told that cultured meat could help ease a global food shortage.
"Once people know more about cultured meat, many of them will accept it. It is important for us to keep educating the public about it," Nakamura said.
At present, Japan has no laws governing cultured meat. Discussions have begun aimed at dealing with potential legal issues. At the moment it is not even clear whether cultured meat can be called "meat."
Despite these obstacles, lab-grown meat is attracting attention as means to combat global food shortages. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates demand for meat will jump 80% by 2050, compared with 2007, due to growth in emerging economies.
Raising more cattle and other livestock is becoming harder as it requires massive amounts of feed and water, and generates a lot of greenhouse gases. Lab-grown meat could help resolve this problem.
"There is a lot to be done, but cultured meat could bring many business opportunities," Takeuchi said.