The meat behind GOOD Meat
Cultured chicken was approved by Singapore this past month on December 2, 2020. This marks the first cultured¹ meat product approved by a national government, paving the way for the budding industry’s startups.
While Eat Just Inc. isn’t the first company to serve cultured chicken², they are the first to receive a stamp of safety approval from a governmental regulatory agency. With experience from their plant-based egg product, Just Egg, and over $200M in funding, Eat Just Inc. is preparing to launch these cultured meat products under a new brand called GOOD Meat.
The first product is chicken nuggets. A visit to their website fills the senses: sounds of the rainforest, a history lesson on poultry dating back to the dinosaurs, and the headline, “GOOD Meat is real meat. Made without tearing a forest or taking a life.” Fittingly, a private members’ club named 1880, will be the first venue selling these cultured chicken nuggets. After the dazzle and dust of the regulatory approval settles, the key question still remains, what actually is GOOD Meat?
In a competitive race of cultured meat startups producing nearly every possible variety, Just Inc. becomes the first company to jump through the regulatory hurdles of these new foods. Their cultured chicken will first be sold as chicken nuggets at “premium” prices.
We took a deep dive on GOOD Meat to get a sense on what the nutrition label may say.
The Singapore government has been proactive in alternative foods through their 30 by 30 initiative: 30% of food produced internally by 2030. The initiative has provided both financial³ and ideological support for cultured meat to reach this milestone in Singapore. Just Inc.’s regulatory approval bolsters local partnerships to build a cultured meat factory in Singapore.
The Singapore Food Agency (SFA), similar to the FDA here in the states, is responsible for the oversight of these products, classified as novel foods and more specifically alternative proteins, which is essentially a grab-bag term for any protein that doesn’t come from animals. SFA created a regulatory framework for the safety assessment of these foods in 2019 and an expert review group in 2020⁴.
As SFA states, “Together with our expert working group, SFA conducted an extensive and thorough review of Eat Just’s safety assessments for food safety risks. No food safety concerns were found and Eat Just’s cultured chicken was allowed to be sold in Singapore as an ingredient in its nuggets product.”
Luckily, SFA is straightforward on these requirements, although they acknowledge how fast the cultured meat industry is moving and thus how these requirements may change. It boils down to detailing what the meat is exactly and how it is made. This includes what proteins are in the meat and what components of the growth media remain in the product, if any. Additionally, since cultured meat is created from living, growing cells (just like the yeast in bread or beer), SFA requires details on how the cells may change over time and what risks can arise from this adaptation.
Given SFA’s approval, we can expect the United States to take notice, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. The United States may follow suit with regulatory oversight through a joint agreement between the FDA and USDA-Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), announced in September 2018, and outlined July 2020. In this agreement, the FDA is responsible for oversight of the cell lines used. This includes the initial generation of the cell line, banking for future use, and cultivation of cell lines. After the cell line is grown and ready for harvesting, the oversight is transferred to the USDA to review and regulate the creation of the final product. It’s unclear how their regulatory requirements or the scientific documentation needed will differ from the SFA. No cultured meat products are available in the United States yet. We can expect incoming products to face stiff opposition from the meat industry.
Eat Just provides answers to most of these questions in their patent filed December 12th, 2020. It’s worth noting the limitations of what we can learn from their patent. Since patents are written to encompass many embodiments, or versions of their patented entity, here we focus on the range of these claims and the examples provided within the patent.
First, it’s a mixture of cultured meat and plant protein that is exceptionally similar to conventional chicken nutritionally with the exception of sodium percentage. The composition⁵ may be 20–40% water, 25–50% cell paste (the cultured meat), 10–20% mung bean (the legume used in their plant-based egg product), 5–20% fat, and 0.0001–0.0125% transglutaminase (a common enzyme found in humans and animals used to improve the texture of the end product). They grow up chicken cells in large sterile metal vats, concentrate and wash the cells, mix it with mung bean protein, fat, transglutaminase, heat the mixture at various times and temperatures between 100–180 degrees Fahrenheit (40–85 degrees Celsius), and out comes their product. As they describe on their website, this process may look much like a beer brewery. Instead of yeast eating sugars to create alcohol in large metal reactors, animal cells are eating nutrients.
Most notably, they detail one of the cell lines used⁶: an avian fibroblast line called UMNSAH/DF1. While the name sounds off putting, this non-genetically modified cell line was generated in 1996 from 10 day old chicken eggs when researchers found these cells spontaneously kept growing. They tested to see if the cells were contaminated with any viruses or could grow tumors–both negative. The cells are frozen and stored in liquid nitrogen and thus UMNSAH/DF1 was created.
Another common concern is the components and carryover of culture media into the product. The cultured meat industry has struggled with the fact that fetal bovine serum (FBS) is used to grow the meat. A true animal-free cruelty-free product cannot use this component, which is challenging to replace since it can be difficult to pinpoint the composition and which components are actually helping the cells grow. The industry dubs this as the biggest concern and challenge to solve. Eat Just’s patent lends some promising information to their progress. In certain cases, they reduce the amount of FBS in the media 5-fold lower before harvesting the cells. In other cases, they gradually adapt the cells to lower and lower FBS until no FBS remains with minimal effects to the density or growth of the cells. To achieve this, they replace FBS with more defined proteins like growth factors. Although it’s unclear if their final product was grown with FBS, it is clear that they are making headway on removing it from their manufacturing process.
Since the cells are grown in thousands of liters of media⁷ containing many nutrients needed for cell growth but not desired in the final product. To remove any media components, the cultured cells are washed with salt water four times. They estimate that anything in the media is present at less than 10 ppm or 0.0001%, based on the detection of common media components like albumin⁸. To address another regulatory requirement, genetic sequencing was performed on these cells to assess how cells change during manufacturing, it’s difficult to interpret these results from the patent, although the assignees note that the expression of any genes associated with harmful products⁹ changed.
In a previous announcement, Eat Just priced a single nugget at $50. More recently, their website prices an entree at 1880 for $23, “what a guest would pay for a conventional chicken entree there.” Given their goal to be cheaper than chicken, costs will need to drop further. Publicly, they boast five times more cells harvested per batch, six times cheaper media costs, and 40 times overall cost reduction.
Achieving higher cell densities is critical to reach more sustainable production scales, such as a 20,000L batch producing on average 3150 kg of meat as suggested by Liz Specht at the Good Food Institute. While cell densities rarely exceed 2 million cells per mL, Eat Just claims “Cell densities far exceeding 2 million cells/mL were routinely obtained.” It’s difficult to know what densities they are achieving, considering the patent provides a range from 0.25 million to 150 million cells/mL. If we make some basic assumptions typically used in the field, we can estimate⁹ they produce 7.2 kg (15.8 lbs) of biomass in around 3 days per 1200L¹¹ reactor at the minimum. This amount can multiply quickly depending on how much biomass is in a “chicken nugget” they produce. Say if the raw biomass is only 10% of the final product and they actually can harvest at five times more biomass that amount: 360 kg (793 lbs) of chicken nuggets produced without slaughtering a chicken.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of their patent is the jab to the safety of the current chicken industry in the patent background: “During slaughter and processing, contamination of the meat with fecal matter is common. In random surveys of chicken products across the United States in 2012, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine found 48% of samples to contain fecal matter, and a 2009 USDA study found that 87% of chicken carcasses tested positive for generic E. coli, a sign of fecal contamination, just prior to packaging.” Using no antibiotics, Eat Just found less bacterial contaminants than conventional chicken and “negligible” based on FDA guidelines. Considering these cells are likely grown similarly to what the pharmaceutical industry uses to produce medicines under presumably stricter regulations and higher risks, it’s certainly safe to say that this meat comes from a cleaner environment.
Although we may see additional additives in the final food product, the GOOD Meat chicken nugget is surprisingly simple based on their patent: washed, concentrated cells derived from chicken eggs mixed with plant protein and fat.
Written by: Josh Peters for Helikon Consulting, LLC
- Also known as cultivated meat, lab-grown meat, and clean meat.
- SuperMeat, an Israeli company, has been serving samples of their chicken
- $144 million dollars
- This group includes experts in food toxicology, bioinformatics, nutrition, epidemiology, public health policy, food science and food technology.
- We use “may” here because we don’t know for sure, but we can take what they claim in the patent at face value.
- They most likely use a variety of cell lines. We don’t know what cell line they use for the final product.
- Typically known as a red liquid containing sugars, salts, and proteins.
- Albumin is the same protein that makes up egg whites. Our bodies also produce a lot of it.
- This phrase raises the question of “what are the genes that produce known harmful products?” in the first place.
- Assuming each cell is 3.5E-9 grams.
- This is the largest reactor size they state in the patent.