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Brazil is at the forefront in the development of cultivated meat

February 26, 2023

Embrapa Swine and Poultry is conducting a study in Brazil to develop lab-grown chicken. The new product, which resembles 'sasami' in the form of prototypes of boneless chicken breast fillets, should be ready for nutritional and sensory analysis by the end of 2023.

The project was approved by an international competitive notice by The Good Food Institute (GFI). Among the 22 projects selected in 2021, five are Brazilian, including Embrapa Swine and Poultry.

The increase in protein consumption over the years, new eating habits and concern for sustainability have aroused in the scientific community the need to expand the technology needed to produce food and meet the growing global food demand. With attention to new production technologies, cultured protein is one of the alternatives in view. To produce it, cells are extracted from an animal and cultivated (grown), first in a laboratory-scale nutritional medium, then in large bioreactors. The result translates into the expansion of the capacity to produce protein, diversifying the sources of production. The final product can be used to produce unstructured foods, such as hamburgers, sausages and meatballs or structured meatballs, such as steaks and steaks.

"It's been a subject discussed for some time," explained Vivian Feddern, lead researcher of the project. "But the scale gain is happening now because technology is becoming more viable, and so investments in the development of these alternative proteins are beginning to follow and are getting bigger and bigger." In his assessment, the advantage of investing right now in this rapidly rising market is evident. "In addition to the technological vanguard, we will be able to offer alternative technology and/or proteins to companies in Brazil and countries importing livestock products."

Embrapa's choice of study of chicken meat took into account the fact that it is one of the most common proteins consumed throughout the country, in addition to one of the most nutritionally complete foods, important for healthy diets. Another advantage of the study concerns access to the genetic database of birds of Embrapa Swine and Birds.

According to agencies such as OECD-FAO, the global poultry meat market is growing and is estimated to be at approximately 131 million tons in 2026. For researchers, this data show a promising scenario for entrepreneurs and industries to seek alternative production technology, such as cultivated meat. "Although studies with this chain are more recent when compared to bovine cell culture products, many efforts have been employed in recent years and multiple companies have established themselves in various locations around the world," Feddern continued. Among the countries already studying farmed chicken meat are Canada, the Czech Republic, th USA, Japan, Israel, France, South Africa and Switzerland.

In 2020, Singapore passed legislation to market farmed breaded chicken produced by Eat Just. In 2022, in the USA, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted approval to UPSIDE Foods of California for farmed chicken. In the Netherlands, also in 2022, parliament legalized the tasting of meat grown under controlled conditions, highlighting that it was the first country to present a hamburger grown by pharmacologist Mark Post in 2013 in the presence of 200 journalists and academics. Post is also co-founder of the Netherlands-based company Mosa Meat.

Although there is still no commercialization, the products grown can be enjoyed in some restaurants in these countries, such as Israel, which has queues for tasting and reservation list for customers.

In Brazil, there is still no legislation, but the National Alternative Protein Plan (PNPA) is in the process of being created by the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock (Mapa). In this plan are contemplated foods and their protein-based ingredients from plants, insects, fungi, algae and other alternative sources obtained by established production methods, fermentation processes, cell culture and innovative processes.

The legislation should still be one step further, according to Feddern. "Some companies such as BRF, JBS and Cellva Ingredients have already started investing in research to produce cultivated meat and ingredients such as swine fat. Most are focused on unstructured products, as is the case with hamburgers, unlike a chicken breast that needs structure. As the process is more complex, we still have a path ahead", he adds.

The project provides for two innovation solutions. One of them is aimed at the development of a 'Methodology for obtaining optimized cultivation conditions of bacterial nanocellulose-producing bacteria aimed at a viable and reliable commercial lineage', which is the responsibility of researcher Ana Paula Bastos. The other innovation will be the development of the product itself, which is the chicken breast analogue, under the responsibility of the lead researcher of the project.

In this project, the researchers work with adult and embryonic stem cells, myocyte, fibroblast and chicken adipocyte. Throughout the development, it was noted the need to create a biobank of cell lines of chicken to meet the market of cultivated meat. According to Bastos, the biobank can dramatically reduce the need for repeated generation of primary cell cultures and will allow the cell-based industry to work with stable, reproducible and consistent cell lines during the development of cultivated meat products.

She also points out that there will be no obstacles to licensing and authorization of the use of cell lines because the source of cells are the animals of Embrapa's breeding program. "The creation of an institutional biobank of Embrapa with cell lines characterized and destined to cultivated meat products can be licensed, which will significantly reduce the barrier of entry of researchers, startups and industry interested in cultivated meat", she comments.

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