FANCY a lamb burger made from meat grown in a laboratory in Brunswick? How about a synthetic pork sausage? Or a man-made chicken nugget or fish bite?
All these items could be on the menu within the next couple of years, the products of a young Brunswick-based company that is at the forefront of research that could change the production of meat worldwide.
Magic Valley, established less than three years ago, has already begun producing small samples of lamb and pork from a single microscopic cell taken from an animal.
Subject to approval from food and health regulators, Magic Valley could have commercial quantities of its products in supermarkets in a couple of years.
Cultivated or cultured meat would take away the need to slaughter animals, reduce land clearance for agricultural purposes, and potentially help in the fight against climate change.
And, in perhaps the greatest twist of all, the two driving forces behind Magic Valley are a vegan and a vegetarian.
“I’m super excited about the potential that we’ve got,” says Magic Valley’s head of research and development Andrew Laslett, the vegetarian in the partnership.
“It’s going to take a long time, but to change the way that meat, which is one of the most widely consumed proteins on the planet, is consumed, even in a small fraction of people in my lifetime is super exciting.
“And to have the longer term benefits of effecting positively climate change is great.”
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Magic Valley was founded by entrepreneur and long-time vegan Paul Bevan in early-2020.
After many years of animal rights activism, Mr Bevan came to the realisation that rather than attempting to convince people to switch their diets from eating meat, perhaps technology could be harnessed to produce meat without harming animals.
“His main purpose for starting the company is to remove animals from the food chain by providing a choice for people who want a more sustainable, more ethical meat but still want to eat meat,” said Professor Laslett.
Professor Laslett, who is a vegetarian for health reasons rather than moral reasons, was working at the CSIRO on human stem cell research in 2019 when he first crossed paths with Mr Bevan, who was curious whether the same technologies could be used to produce animal meat.
Experiments confirmed it was possible and after investors came on board, Professor Laslett joined Magic Valley as head of research and development in March last year.
Magic Valley is already cultivating meat at Co-Labs, a biotech co-working space in Albert Street.
During trials, its pork has been used in Chinese dumplings and its lamb has been used in tacos and burgers. In future, cultivated meat could be used to make sausages, stir fries, mince, fillings for pies, fish bites, chicken nuggets and a myriad of other options. Even steaks could be just around the corner.
The meat is produced through a deceptively simple process.
A skin sample smaller than a fingernail, similar to a biopsy, is taken from an animal – often from its ear. This is then converted into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) that can quickly multiply and grow in a bioreactor in a “soup” of nutrients and non-animal growth factors known as culture media. iPSCs can turn into all the components of meat, including fat, muscle and connective tissue.
The iPSCs can continue to expand indefinitely, the only limit being the size of the bioreactor in which they are grown.
The amount of production by Magic Valley at the moment is tiny: at most with its current 500 ml bioreactor the lab could churn out enough pork for 100 dumplings a week. The process can take anything from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, depending on the outcome that is being sought.
But the company is moving into a much larger laboratory setting, still in Brunswick, and is raising funds from investors to set up a large-scale pilot plant.
Magic Valley is constantly refining its products. It will be making an application to Food Standards Australian New Zealand for approval to sell its meat and could have products on the shelves by the end of 2024 or early 2025.
The meat is “grown” in a bioreactor like this one.
Magic Valley has so far only produced lamb and pork products, but once it enters the commercial phase, Professor Laslett says it will also cultivate beef and seafood products, and potentially chicken.
Initially, the cultivated meats would be supplied to restaurants and to wholesalers for use in processed food products.
Professor Laslett said supermarkets were interested because supply of laboratory meat has the potential to be more reliable than farm grown meat which is susceptible to droughts, floods and diseases. In a sterile laboratory setting, there is also virtually no risk of meat being compromised by bacteria.
“Creating meat in this way will have substantial effects on reduction of CO2 emissions, reduction of land use and the ability to revegetate and to put back the natural vegetation on large areas of land. So really helping the fight against climate change.”
Whether consumers will be convinced that lab-meat is as good as the real thing remains to be seen.
Brunswick Voice did not get an opportunity to sample the product during a recent visit to Magic Valley, but Professor Laslett assures us that “the response from a couple of the tastings that we’ve had is it tastes like meat”.
“We explain to them that what you’re holding, it smells exactly like a lamb burger and looks exactly like a lamb burger but it’s from an animal that’s still running around in a field,” Professor Laslett said.
“People’s jaws just drop when they when it hits them that Hold on, I’m eating real meat but the animal’s still running around.”
To back him up, the company’s head of innovation, Jacob Goodwin, grew up on a beef cattle farm in rural Queensland and comes from a family of meat eaters who he says he would not hesitate to turn onto lab-grown meat.
“It’s processed like a normal food and then it’s made into an ingredient for other things,” he said.
“It’s pretty much the same as any pork dumpling or lamb product that we’ve tasted.”
Dr Goodwin said cultivated meat was unlikely to ever replace farm-grown meat, but could eventually complement the cattle industry.
Magic Valley is part of a growing global push to develop cultivated meat. It is one of more than 150 companies around the world focusing on meat from cells, while in June, two Californian companies were given the green light by US regulators to begin selling their lab-grown meat to restaurants. That follows Singapore allowing lab-grown chicken to be consumed in restaurants last year.
Billions of dollars are being invested in the industry, but some experts believe it will not solve world food shortages and is likely only ever be a niche product for wealthier consumers, much in the same way as organically grown and harvested food.
The next step for Magic Valley is approval by FSANZ. Professor Laslett said production would initially be on a small scale and sold direct to restaurants or as ingredients in manufactured food like sausages.
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