AUSTIN (KXAN) – The future of meat has arrived and it is coming from the distant past. This March, a meatball made from “woolly mammoth” meat was placed on display in the Netherlands.
The meatball, created by Australian-based Vow Food, was created to start a conversation about the future of meat.
“We made the woolly mammoth meatball, not as a food, but really as a way to start a conversation,” said CEO and Co-Founder of Vow Food, George Peppou.
This “cultured” or lab-grown meat is part of a larger trend in the meat industry towards sustainable meat products that don’t contribute to climate change. According to the United Nations, 14.5% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are created by livestock farming.
“It’s about reducing the growth of animal industries, as opposed to trying to displace everything that already exists,” Peppou said.
“I think fixing the system that we have currently in place is probably a better use of our time and efforts then created a whole ‘nother industry,” said Thomas Gardner, owner of Hudson Meat Market on South Congress.
Hudson Meat Market has been operating in Austin for more than 50 years, selling locally-sourced meat to locals and tourists. “I think with cultured meat, you’re introducing a whole lot of other things into meat processing,” Gardner said.
The possibilities of lab grown meat
Peppou said that their process allows them to grow meat from a variety of sources.
For the mammoth meatball, it was grown in a lab using proteins recovered from woolly mammoth DNA. Those proteins were combined with Asian Elephant DNA, in order to fill some crucial gaps, and then grown in a vat at Vow Food’s lab.
The same process can be used for other animals as well.
In March, Vow Food brought the primary product they make, quail, to an exhibit at South-By-Southwest. People were able to sign a waiver and try the lab-grown quail meat, served in a dumpling, at a restaurant on Rainey Street.
According to Peppou, “While we’ve been making things like mammoth and quail, that’s not really how we see the future. So our view is that the future of meat is going to look a lot like breakfast cereal, where you can go to the meat aisle and have several different options beyond beef, pork or chicken.”
When the meat is grown, the protein cells are placed in the vat, where they reproduce. Sometimes the meat will look minced while other times it looks more like pulled pork, according to Peppou.
“They’re flooding around, they’re growing, we harvest them, and we have the cell mass, that we can then turn into a range of different products.”
Its those possibilities that most excite Peppou. “We’ve sort of strip away a lot of the assumptions around what meat is and isn’t, and really just make things that [are] really enjoyable and consumers love.”
The future of BBQ
Hudson Meat Market sells their own locally-sourced quail. “It’s nice knowing that I can call up my supplier in Lockhart, he brings me his stuff. I don’t know if I’d feel as comfortable calling up some lab and having lab-grown quail brought over,” Gardner said.
But Gardner said that the exotic meats, like woolly mammoth, do excite him.
“With woolly mammoth, you’re looking at something that’s extinct. So yeah, there’s like no way we would be able to source something like that. You know, it feels a little like Jurassic Park,” Gardner said.
Right now, cultured or lab grown meat is only legal in Singapore. The United States is currently in the process of approving lab grown meat for sale.
In November, the FDA completed pre-market tests on lab grown chicken created by UPSIDE Foods. Now, the company is waiting for approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
It should be noted, the woolly mammoth meatball can’t actually be eaten. The proteins used to create it haven’t been consumed by humans for more than three thousand years and the company says we may be allergic to them.