A company wants to produce meat in vitro in Quebec
Meatleo wants to become the first food biotech in Quebec to produce meat grown in a bioreactor from cells taken from beef. Ambitious, it wants to produce on a large scale from 2026 to eventually supply 5% of the ground beef consumed in Quebec, which represents approximately 10 million tonnes of beef.
“We like meat; only, we don’t like the way it’s produced,” says Pierre Normandin, CEO. of biotech in Saint-Bruno. The human has collected all the necessary ingredients to develop « a recipe for disaster », according to the businessman.
“We eat 300 billion kilos of meat every year. Nearly 200 million animals are slaughtered every day. It does not work. We are going to hit a wall in terms of the environment as well as diseases and pandemics,” he said.
The meat industry will eventually shrink, he anticipates. A business opportunity that he decided to seize after selling his shares in the stone and cobblestone manufacturer Rocvale in March 2021: « I was aware of what was happening in the alternative protein sector, with the vegetable. That’s what brought me to cultured meat. My first reaction was: it’s science fiction! But by dint of reading about it, of contacting specialists, scientists, I understood that it was promising. »
Since its inception in November 2021, Meatleo has grown rapidly. She adopted three calves baptized according to the origin of their breed: Winston for an Angus, Leonardo for a Simmental and Voltaire for a Limousin.
In collaboration with researchers from McGill University, the company selected the cells of these animals. In recent months, Mr. Normandin has teamed up with Patrick Vermette, full professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology Engineering at the Université de Sherbrooke. He is now in charge of the scientific direction of a small team made up of two other researchers.
Their goal is now to characterize the selected cells, relates Pierre Normandin: “And the characterization of the biological, it’s infinite. But you have to go far enough in your research to know the signals of the cells, the proteins that are involved and to fully understand what triggers cell differentiation. »
It is this knowledge that will make it possible to develop a technology suitable for cell proliferation. « Because in fact, what we want to do is to replace the bovine organism with a bioreactor, a place where the cells will be able to multiply, » he says. An approach that stems from biomimicry, a scientific approach that consists of drawing inspiration from nature to innovate and where physical biology and engineering meet.
Mr. Normandin adds: “We don’t want to imitate what nature gives us, we want to replicate it. We don’t want to make a product that looks like beef; we want to make beef and delicious meat. Its goal: to produce on a large scale from 2026 to eventually supply 5% of the ground beef consumed in Quebec, which represents approximately 10 million tonnes of beef.
Not « Frankenstein »
“It’s food, but it’s not a traditional approach. We must set up a culture medium that is similar to that of the organism,” explains bioengineering specialist Alain Garnier, full professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Université Laval.
“Without saying that producing meat is easy, we can still say that producing animal cells in large enough quantities to have a mass that we can compress and cook to make a burger is doable. But we remain far from industrialization, from large-scale production,” he points out.
He recalls the visibility of the nascent sector aroused in 2013 when the Dutch scientist Mark Post – founder of Mosa Meat – gave food critics a taste of the first burger made from cultured meat. The initiative had cost more than 300,000 dollars and had been made possible thanks to the financing of Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google.
“For 10 years — and more markedly for five years — billions of dollars have been invested to push technologies that could make cultured meat possible,” observes Mr. Garnier.
These companies must succeed in developing environments that allow large-scale production, notes the professor: « These are cells that are produced in sterile, aseptic spaces, which resemble laboratories and which meet production standards close to those of the pharmaceutical sector. »
For the moment, the young industry is concentrated in a few places: California, Boston, the Netherlands, Israel. And of course Singapore is rolling out the red carpet for her. In December 2020, the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) gave the world’s first regulatory approval for the sale of cultured meat made by an American startup, Eat Just.
A few initiatives are appearing in countries which, at first glance, are not interested in the sector. This is the case in France, where the start-up Gourmey is working on the development of foie gras in the laboratory. In October, it raised $48 million in a funding round led by Earlybird Venture Capital.
« And for all these companies, what is needed is to significantly lower production costs, » summarizes Mr. Garnier.
The price at which Meatleo’s meat could sell is a challenge, concedes Pierre Normandin. The sole investor in the company, he believes, on the other hand, that production costs could be driven down over the years, as was the case for renewable energies: « You have to remember that when wind turbines and solar began to develop, it was too expensive. Today, solar energy is the cheapest energy. There has been an industrialization of processes which has lowered costs. And I think the same thing will happen. »
Price is not the only challenge to the eventual commercialization of in vitro meat. Consumers will have to change their perception. “You have to get the consumer to tell himself that he’s not eating Frankenstein-type food, made in a laboratory with test tubes and pipettes, because that’s not the case. If the research was done in the laboratory, the production is done in the factory. »
In that sense, he believes, Meatleo’s product should be no different from producing yogurt or beer. “Danone and Molson have laboratories where scientists do all the analysis of the product, for quality control among other things. That’s what we’re going to do. But it will be produced like Danone or Molson, in large fermenters,” he concludes.
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