food / travel

In Beef-Loving Argentina, The Hunt For A Lab Meat Alternative

An Argentine pharmaceutical firm has begun testing lab beef production and expects to have a tasty and 'painless' product sizzling within a few years.

State laboratory food testing in Neumuenster, Germany.
State laboratory food testing in Neumuenster, Germany.
Mauricio Bártoli

BUENOS AIRES — You can make meat in four weeks. In other words, instead of raising cattle in the countryside for more than two years, you can obtain a similar product from a laboratory, much faster and less expensively. Yes, we may need another 10 years for this to be rolled out on a commercial scale. But we can now say that manufactured meat is a reality in (beef-loving) Argentina. The company behind the breakthrough is Craveri laboratories, a veteran pharmaceutical producer now investigating food production, which now has a lab meat division: BIFE (Bio Ingeniería en la Fabricación de Elaborados, or Bioengineering in Processed Foods Manufacturing).

Lab-grown meat is not genetically modified nor plant-based in its ingredients like certain meat alternatives. Quite simply, just as a cow augments its kilograms of meat as it grows, lab meat cells are reproduced with similar characteristics, but outside an animal body.

The process begins with a bit of muscle tissue obtained from a live animal, in a swift and harmless procedure under anesthesia​. The sample is taken in a culturing vat from a field in Atalaya, 100 kilometers from Buenos Aires, to a lab in the capital's district of Caballito. There the muscle stem cells are isolated as they naturally function to recreate tissue when muscles are harmed, which is the capacity used in meat cultivation.

Cultured meat will have ideal textures, tastes and nutritional value.

In vitro, with nutrients and growth factors, the cells proliferate as they would in an animal, and multiply a few million times to form fusioned structures 0.3 millimeter in length, called microtubules. These are placed on a scaffold favoring cells' natural tendency to contract, and enabling the creation of small muscular tissue rings. The 5-millimeter original sample can thus yield 800 million muscle tissue rings, enough to make 80,000 hamburgers. When the multiplied fragments combine, the result is the same as at the start of the process: meat.

Nobody had tried this in our country, where lab meat production and consumption are not yet regulated. Only 50 people in all are thought to have ingested lab meat, though scientists are confident both these will follow the early steps.

The head of Craveri's bioengineering division, Laura Correa, foresees "ideal textures and even tastes. Even the nutritional value will be the same, with the possibility for example of regulating fat content and adding vitamins and minerals. We are anticipating working with chefs who can develop outlets for commercial gastronomy."

People consider meat a natural product.

The main argument for "cell farming" is as a response to a growing world population and its food needs, and its potential for sustainable production based on cell cultivation, without killing animals. Meat cultivation took off in 2013 when the Dutchman Mark Post, a professor at Maastricht University, presented the first lab hamburger, which then cost U.S. $280,000. Two years later he created Mosa Meat, which is working to bring the price down to $10 within two or three years.

The head of the Craveri Laboratory, Juan Craveri, cites lab meat's advantage as being reduced environmental costs (96% less water, 99% less land, 45% less energy), but admits limitations including a shortage of bioreactors where the cells grow, absence of regulations for now and "cultural aspects... as a vast majority of people consider meat a natural product." ​

Craveri finance their meat research with profits from their pharmaceutical activities, which include anti-diabetes drugs, and contraceptives. It has been working in bioengineering for two decades, using cell multiplication technologies and testing with rabbit and pig tissues. Its BIFE division, formed in 2016, now employs eight of its total 320 staff. Its labs are the only ones currently registered for cell manipulation with INCUCAI, the government's transplantation watchdog.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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