End of “antibiotic era”? Dissecting risk of resistant bacteria in cell-based protein

24 Oct 2022 — The acceleration of antimicrobial-resistant bacterial strains threatens to set back industry by “decades,” warns the Good Food Institute (GFI). But even while conventional meat is the predominant driver of antimicrobial resistance, the GFI poses the question of whether cultivated meat will help solve this problem – or if it is potentially worse than conventional meat.

With 70% of medically-important antibiotics used for animal agriculture, conventional meat is a major contributor to the risk of antimicrobial resistance. By removing the animal from the equation, alternative proteins – including plant-based, cultivated, fermentation-derived and hybrid products – are a global health solution.

“These are fair questions,” states the food body. “Anyone who has worked in an animal cell or tissue culture lab knows that microbial contamination is a common challenge, and that this challenge is often addressed by adding antibiotics to the cell culture media.”

“The people asking these questions raise perfectly reasonable concerns based on their knowledge of standard laboratory techniques. The science of alternative proteins advances by engaging earnestly with the hard questions and adjusting the approach accordingly. We must approach these questions with open-mindedness and humility.”

Pitfalls of modern science’s great achievement
The discovery of antibiotic and antimicrobial compounds and their use in medicine is one of the great achievements of modern science.

While these compounds had been used in some capacity throughout human history, the modern “antibiotic era” meant once unmanageable diseases such as tuberculosis could be easily cured using antibiotics. Antimicrobials have since saved countless lives and prevented a great deal of human suffering.

However, the routine use of antibiotics and antimicrobials – including in conventional meat production – has led to an increase in the frequency of antimicrobial-resistant strains.

“Fortunately, the available evidence provides a high degree of confidence that antibiotic-free production is not only possible but much more likely than the cultivated meat industry depending on routine antibiotic use to prevent contamination,” states the GFI.

GFI notes that the question of whether the future of the cultivated meat industry is likely to use antibiotics comes down to two questions: “Is it feasible to produce mammalian cells and tissues at scale without using antibiotics? If so, what are the pros and cons of antibiotic use in this context?”

“This is pretty easy to answer,” it highlights. “The cultivated meat industry’s goal is to cultivate animal cells at scale without losing batches due to contamination, or worse, producing unsafe products.”

“We know this can be done because the biopharmaceutical industry is already doing it routinely. Whereas cell cultures in academic research are subject to frequent handling, reagents are shared between multiple researchers, and there are many opportunities for contamination to be introduced, the same is not true in commercial-scale biopharma manufacturing.”

Moving toward price party
The contamination-related batch failure rate in biopharma has been estimated at roughly 2%, suggesting that contamination is successfully controlled without antibiotics in the majority of cases, underscores the GFI.

However, the cost of production for biopharma products is much higher than what is tolerated by the food industry. The cultivated meat industry may face additional challenges due to the use of larger vessels or differences in facility design.

“Even so, the current state of biopharma provides a clear demonstration that commercial-scale, antibiotic-free production of animal cell cultures is possible while also giving us a rough starting point to understand what it might look like,” concedes the GFI.

Over the past year, advances have been made in scaling efficiencies for cell-based meats and dairy alternatives, which further drive down its price point. GFI notes that these further advances are primarily a matter of optimization, not requiring entirely new technology development.

For instance, earlier this year, Good Meat began scaling what it hails as industry’s largest known bioreactors for producing avian and mammalian cell-based meat, to be integrated into its US and Singapore-based facilities with the capacity to produce up to 30 million pounds of protein.

First launched in Singapore’s foodservice channel in December 2020, Good Meat’s cultivated meat products are entirely antibiotic-free. The products have since been integrated into immersive dining experiences at the JW Marriott Singapore South Beach, home delivery via Foodpanda and at some of Singapore’s famed hawker centers.

Inconsequential risk of contamination
Just because antibiotic-free meat cultivation is possible doesn’t mean it will happen by default.

The one area of ​​the meat cultivation process where GFI anticipates that antibiotics may be used is in the initial cell isolation and cell line development stages, rather than in the manufacturing of the final product. The impact of this is deemed “minuscule.”

“However, because this happens on a smaller scale, we would not expect line development to pose major antimicrobial resistance even risks if antibiotics are used. Therefore, it’s important to distinguish between pre-production and production steps,” states the GFI.

“For cultivated meat to be a useful part of the solution to the antimicrobial resistance crisis, antibiotic-free production is essential, but pre-production antibiotic use [in the animals where the cells are sourced from] is likely to be acceptable.”

But the GFI remains “confident” that the future of the cultivated meat industry will not rely on routine antibiotic use for production based on the information currently available. Public statements from over a dozen cultivated meat startups – including Aleph Farms, Wildtype, Mission Barns, Meatable, Supermeat, Biotech Foods, Peace of Meat, Biftek, Higher Steaks, Finless Foods, New Age Meats and Upside Foods – support this conclusion.

“While many cultivated meat companies are motivated to exclude antibiotics from their production practices, it is fair to consider the economic factors that ultimately may sway that decision one way or the other,” the GFI concedes.

By Benjamin Ferrer

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