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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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