Meat balls made from the cells of the long extinct woolly mammoth made a huge splash in the media back in March, after an Australian company’s alternative protein launch at the Nemo Museum in Amsterdam.
That meatball wasn’t intended to be eaten, though – at least not any time soon. It was intended to start a conversation about creating a more sustainable food future. As it definitely did, worldwide, thanks to a brilliant ad campaign from Wunderman Thompson. (Although more than a few people did want to sample the meatballs, as it turned out.)
Here’s how Vox co-founder George Peppou explained it in Medium:
“The world’s population is expected to hit 10 billion by 2050, meaning we don’t have long to work out how to scale our food system. And as meat demand continues to rise all over the world, we need to rethink our current food system –now — and explore new possibilities for how we can meet our nutritional needs without relying on more factory farming.”
“That’s why we created the mammoth meatball, to serve as a starting point for this conversation.
It’s a bold and exciting experiment that challenges us to think outside the box and imagine a future where meat consumption can be so different from what we know today.”
Creating the mammoth meat ball was a lot of work. Prof Ernst Wolvetang of the Australian Institute for Bioengineering at the University of Queensland created the mammoth muscle protein, using the DNA sequence for mammoth myoglobin, with a few gaps filled in with African elephant DNA. Placed in myoblast stem cells from a sheep, the sequence was replicated to grow to the 20 billion cells used to grow the mammoth meat.
Vow is known for its “exotic” approach to alt-protein, says AgFunder News. In 2019, Vow became the world’s first company to make a food product from the cells of an undomesticated animal, in the form of a Kangaroo Dumpling. It develops cultivated meat from the cells of such animals as kangaroo, water buffalo, alpaca, and zebra, instead of the usual chicken or beef. It has a library of genetic materials from 22 different types of animals.
“With a technology like cultured meat we won’t need to think in terms of what we already consume,” says co-founder George Peppou. “Instead, we can start with first principles: what protein would we choose if we could eat anything?”
It is a company that definitely thinks outside the box, and that makes sense when you learn its origin story. Now with a workforce of 60 that has grown from three since its founding in 2019, it has opened the largest cultivated meat facility in the southern hemisphere, in Sydney, which will produce up to 30 tonnes of cultivated meat annually, and is building a second much larger factory which will be complete in the second half of 2024.
The company has regulatory approval to sell its cultured umami quail product, Morsel, in Singapore by the end of 2023, and is seeking approval from Food Standards Australia New Zealand to launch Morsel in Australia by 2024. It raised $49.2 million (A$73.5 million) — the largest ever Series A for a cultivated meat startup — to launch its quail product, which originates from cells of the rare Japanese quail, Coturnix japonica.
Meanwhile, in North America, cultivated meat maker Upside Foods received approval from the Food and Drug Administration in November 2022 for its chicken grown from animal cells – the first regulatory approval for any cultivated meat in the US, Reuters reported. “This is a watershed moment in the history of food,” said Uma Valeti, CEO and founder of Upside Foods. “We started UPSIDE amid a world full of skeptics, and today, we’ve made history again. … This milestone marks a major step towards a new era in meat production.”
Just months later, the FDA issued a “no questions” letter to GOOD Meat as part of its pre-market review process. This is the first time a cultivated meat product has received regulatory approval on multiple continents, as GOOD Meat has been serving their cultivated chicken to consumers in Singapore since December 2020.
“Demand for meat is skyrocketing, and we need every tool in our toolkit to feed the world,” said Barry Carpenter, a former president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute and an Upside Foods adviser. “Cultivated meat, along with conventionally-produced meat, will play a crucial role in enabling our food system to get to this point.”
(Coincidentally – or maybe showing how the conversation is rolling along – the Hub had an interesting podcast with Bruce Friedrich, founder of the Good Food Institute, about the economic, environmental, and moral case for cell- and plant-based alternatives to traditional meat.)
The future of meat is grown in a lab, with George Peppou and Tim Noakesmith. Square Peg Founder Stories, on Spotify, Jan. 2021
Kangaroo & Zebra Meat? This Australian Food Tech Is Developing Cell-Cultured Exotic Animal Meats. Green Queen, Aug. 26, 2020
Meatball from long-extinct mammoth created by food firm. Guardian, Mar. 28, 2023
Vow unveils southern hemisphere’s ‘largest’ cultivated meat facility, plans Singapore launch. AgFunder Network, Oct. 4, 2022
Upside Foods gets FDA greenlight for cultivated chicken. Food Dive, Nov. 16, 2022
Cover image: Mauricio Antón, Wikimedia