Tasty Israeli Steaks Without a Single Moo

December 25, 2018

6 min read

The tasty steaks that will be produced by Israel’s Aleph Farms do not come from cattle that were sent to the slaughterhouse and spent their lives mooing and eating grass, alfalfa and corn.

The revolutionary company located in Rehovot’s Weizmann Science Park is shaping the future of meat by turning cow cells into beef cuts,  replicating the complex shape, texture and flavor of a steak. The company has already produced the first cell-grown minute steak in its labs, delivering the full experience of meat with the appearance, shape, and texture of beef cuts.

When its products come to market in a few years, there will be less need to raise cows on vast tracts of land, giving them water, feed and antibiotics. The cattle will not endanger the environment with global warming from their gasses and will not suffer on their way to slaughter.

Some 25 companies around the world have managed to grow cells from cows, chickens, pigs and even fish, and only two have produced hamburgers from cow cells.

But only Aleph Farms (www.aleph-farms.com) has managed to achieve the much more complicated task of creating solid steaks that have the look, texture and taste of the real thing. Cell-grown meat is grown from a few cells of a living animal, extracted painlessly. These cells are nourished and grow to produce a complex matrix that replicates muscle and other tissue.

Aleph Farms is part ofThe Kitchen, created by the Strauss Group Ltd. – an Israeli company that plays a leading role in the global food market innovation – and the Technion; the company is supported by US and European venture capital firms.

One of the barriers to “grown meat” production has been getting the various cell types to interact with each other to build a complete tissue structure as they would in the natural environment inside the animal.

Aleph Farms’ minute steak made from cow cells. (Courtesy Aleph Farms)

Aleph Farms’ minute steak is thinly sliced and will cook in just a minute or so,” said Amir Ilan, chef of the restaurant Paris Texas in Ramat Gan, Israel. “For me, it is a great experience to eat meat that has the look and feel of beef but has been grown without antibiotics and causes no harm to animals or the environment. Aleph Farms meat has high culinary potential – it can be readily incorporated into top-shelf preparations or served in premium-casual restaurants, trendy cafes, bistros or other eateries.”

The annual global market of animal protein for food is $1 trillion – and it is growing. The amount of beef alone that is sold around the world is worth $ 200 billion. So even though Aleph Farms doesn’t claim that it will make cows obsolete – because there are other cuts besides steak that are hard to synthesize or because bovines will still be needed to produce milk – it will have a huge market to munch on.

The company was established in 2017 by Didier Toubia, who came on aliyah from France to Israel 21 years ago. Now the co-founder and CEO, he collaborated on the project with Prof. Shulamit Levenberg, a leading biomedical engineer at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. A prizewinning professor in the molecular cell biology department, Levenberg – a married mother of six children – was in 2006 named by Scientific American magazine as a “Research Leader” in tissue engineering.

She completed her doctorate at the Weizmann Institute of Science on cell adhesion, and her post doctorate research on tissue engineering with Prof. Robert Langer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. Her research showed that it is possible to create complex tissues including blood vessels in a laboratory and that these engineered tissue platforms can integrate with the host when implanted. She is also developing micro bioreactors and nanoliter droplet devices for stem cell growth and manipulations.

Levenberg conducts interdisciplinary research on stem cells and tissue engineering, thus used her know-how on human cells to develop “steak” from various types of beef cells.

Toubia, a food engineer and biologist at AgroSup in Dijon, France who also holds a joint executive master’s of business administration degree from the Kellogg and Recanati business schools at Tel Aviv University,

He explained to Breaking Israel News that it is much more difficult to create solid steak from cow cells than ground meat. “Steak is composed of different types of cells growing as tissue. You have to know how to make the cells interact in a three-dimensional culture similar to real tissue.”

He would not disclose exactly what four different types of cow cells are used to create the steak so as to protect company secrets, but he would say that the redness of the meat is not from the blood of the cow. “It is from myoglobin and hemoglobin in the muscle fibers. Beef that has undergone a koshering process with salt still retains its red color. We reproduce a natural phenomenon under controlled conditions in the lab.”

“We want to become the Microsoft of the meat industry,” the CEO declared. “We’re shaping the future of the industry – literally,” said Toubia. “Making a patty or a sausage from cells cultured outside the animal is challenging enough, imagine how difficult it is to create a whole-muscle steak. At Aleph Farms, this is not science fiction. We’ve transformed the vision into reality by growing a steak under controlled conditions. The initial products are still relatively thin, but the technology we developed marks a true breakthrough and a great leap forward in producing a cell-grown steak.”

The current cost of producing 100 grams of steak is a hefty $50, but Toubia stressed that this is from working in the lab, as the product is not available commercially. “It will take two more years to complete development – and to make the steak thicker – and then two more years to build up production facilities. The company currently has only 13 employees but its staff is expected to grow significantly.

But as the no-cow beef is expected to arouse a huge international market and it has to be made fresh locally – not shipped around the world – factories (possibly franchises) will have to be built in other countries.

We’d like to avoid taking cells from kosher cows that have to be slaughtered. We are working on a way of making very large quantities of meat with a single cell bank. We won’t wipe out the cows of the world. Ours will be a beneficial additional option for meat lovers.”

Using the same know-how, the company could spread its wings to produce solid chicken meat and fish, which currently are endangered due to overfishing and pollution.

And what about the question of whether the meat is kosher, permissible for Jews to eat it with dairy products or even whether it can be made from cells taken from pigs, which are not kosher?

Ultra-Orthodox rabbis or even Modern Orthodox ones who are more conservative are unlikely to jump at the chance to approve the use of the product with milk or from non-kosher animals. But modern Orthodox Rabbi Yuval Cherlow – one of the founders of Tzohar – an organization of religious Zionist Orthodox rabbis in Israel, head of the yeshiva in Kfar Batya and a well-know rabbinical arbiter, is very enthusiastic about cow-cell steak.

“Growing cattle puts a great price on the world – not just money, but also the demands of water and land as well as environmental pollution,” she said. “It’s a great thing to find ways to feed the hungry in the world. Some rabbis will say such steaks from a few cells taken from cows is still meat. But I say that the product is so far from meat that there is no connection.”

Asked if it would be permissible to eat with dairy products, Cherlow – who has not yet tasted the steak, said: “Certainly yes.” And could it be produced from cells from pork? “Absolutely yes. It’s not meat at all; it lost its identify. Not only could such a product be eaten, but it would be a mitzva [good deed] to do so. God won’t have any problem with that. I’m sure about this, from first chapter in Bible. We are created in God’s image, and it’s our responsibility to keep the world going, protect it from environmental damage and feed the growing number of people in the world.”

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