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UK startup Higher Steaks creates world’s first lab-grown bacon prototype

Higher Steaks head of R&D Ruth Faram (l) and CEO Benjamina Bollag (r) with their lab-grown bacon prototype
Higher Steaks head of R&D Ruth Helen Faram (L) and CEO Benjamina Bollag (R) with their lab-grown bacon prototype. Credit: Higher Steaks.

Long before the coronavirus pandemic put the spotlight on the fragility of global food chains and the terrible conditions for both animals and workers at meat processing plants, scientists were warning that the world must set a date for “peak meat” production soon in order to tackle climate change.

While plant-based diets are growing in popularity, many people across the world will go on craving the taste and texture of meat — which is where Higher Steaks comes in.

The Cambridge-based startup announced on Tuesday that it has created the world’s first prototype of lab-grown bacon rashers and pork belly, using animal cells.

“This is a major milestone for Higher Steaks,” said founder and chief executive Benjamina Bollag in a statement. “We have made substantial advancements in a relatively short amount of time whilst managing cash flow.”

There are around 30 startups working on cultivated, or “clean” meat globally, via a process that sees scientists remove a sample of cells from an animal without killing it, and grow them into tissue such as muscle and fat using a special solution in a bioreactor.

READ MORE: Beyond Meat to set up first factory in Europe

“The pork belly is about 50% cultivated meat, and the bacon is around 70% of cultivated meat and the rest is plant based,” Bollag told Yahoo Finance UK. “There’s still some work before it’s turned into a commercial product, but we’re really excited about this big step.”

Bollag, who holds a masters degree in chemical engineering from Imperial College, started the food-tech company in 2017. They had raised pre-seed money of about $200,000 (£157,490), and are getting to a stage where they are ready for Series A funding — the first big round of venture capital financing for a startup.

The company aims to demonstrate a product that is ready to scale in about a year’s time, and want to have their bacon on people’s plates within the next three-to-five years.

Higher Steaks cultivated pork-belly prototype. Credit: Higher Steaks.
Higher Steaks cultivated pork-belly prototype. Photo: Higher Steaks.

While the coronavirus pandemic shut down the Higher Steaks lab for three months, Bollag believes that overall it could turn into a “net positive” for the cultured meat movement in the longer term.

“We’ve seen all the problems with the supply chains, we’ve seen the massive meat processing plants having to shut down, and some of them spreading the diseases,” Bollag said. “We’ve seen what diseases coming from animals moving to humans can do to us, and I think more and more people are realising — and you’re seeing it obviously with plant-based protein — that this is a trend that will continue and will seed absolutely into our sector.”

READ MORE: Conditions at meat plants cause COVID-19 outbreak problems in Europe

Higher Steaks decided to focus on creating pork as it is the world’s most widely consumed meat, but an industry that is heavy on antibiotic usage as well as under threat from diseases like African Swine Flu, which claimed 40% of China’s 360 million pigs in 2019, according to a Rabobank survey.

The startup also announced on Tuesday that James Clark, the former CTO of PredictImmune, has been hired as their chief scientific officer.

“I have been in the pharma/biotech area for over 20 years and I was always quite intrigued by cultured meat production, a mix of both science and food production,” Clark told Yahoo Finance UK. “I believe Higher Steaks is a company with a disruptive technology in the cultured meat area, and at my career stage I was looking for a challenge.”

Clark’s main goal is bringing the cultured pork to market, including shepherding it through regulatory approval processes in Europe and the US.

“I believe with Higher Steaks using no genetic modification in their cultured pork, will make the regulatory pathway more straightforward globally,” he said.

“The route to market in the European Union will use the “Novel foods” pathway which can take between 1.5-2.5 years and will primarily focus on food safety,” he added. “In the US, the regulatory pathway has recently defined and involves the FDA for the early stemcell process work and the USDA for the final food-related pathway.”

READ MORE: Vegan meat replacements to make up 60% of global market by 2040

While a number of market-research studies show that people are curious to try cultivated meat, there is much work to do to raise its profile among consumers, supermarkets, and restaurants.

“Consumer acceptance of cultured meat will depend on a number of factors and it is important that the industry spends some time educating the public to get them to understand the technology and trust the science,” Clark said.

The success of plant-based meat substitute companies, like burger company Beyond Meat (BYND), demonstrates that there is a huge appetite for meat-alternatives amongst consumers.