Biotech Foods: the pioneering company in cultured meat ‘made in Spain’
By Fabiola Gálvez

No one thought the pandemic was coming, but it did. The same thing is happening with the diet we follow and is affecting the planet. The data speak for themselves. In 2050 the world population will reach 10 billion people and the problem is that food demand will be higher than its production. Such is the case with meat consumption, which has increased in recent years and is expected to continue to rise up by 76%, says FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization).

In spite of the fact that intensive livestock farming increases gas emissions contributing to global warming, land degradation, energy, and water. To get an idea, “producing a beef burger drains around 1,695 liters of water”, according to the FAO. In 30 years, “more meat will be eaten than ever before in history, and we will pay an environmental and human price unless we make a change”.

Cultured meat, also called lab-grown meat or in vitro meat, is proposed as a solution. BioTech Food, the Spanish pioneer company, is committed to this gastronomic and environmental revolution: meat grown without animal slaughter.
It will be the future. Lab- grown burgers, meatballs, nuggets, ethical and sustainable meat, free of fats and antibiotics. This is the reason for the name of its trademark “Ethicameat”, which is closer to seeing the light. It will be a step beyond the offer of plant-based meat, that we currently see in the industry.

We talked to Mercedes Vila, Doctor in Materials Physics from the Autonomous University of Madrid, co-founder and director of Technological Development (CTO) of BioTech Foods, so she can explain to us all the work they are doing in the laboratory.


What do you do in BioTech Foods?

BioTech Foods is one of the few initiatives worldwide that develops technology to produce cultured meat. Animal tissue is reproduced in a controlled environment using cell culture technology, making it unnecessary to breed and slaughter animals for the feeding. BioTech Foods aims to respond to a global problem: the unsustainability of today’s intensive livestock farming in view of the increasing world’s population which demand for animal protein consumption has skyrocketed in recent years. From that need, BioTech Foods was born. The climate emergency that we are now requires alternatives to the over-exploitation of natural resources, and to this end, we have to search for answers in science.


How did you plan to start this project in Spain, are you the pioneers?

Since the beginning of my professional career, I’ve been interested in researching real applications that can improve our quality of life. In this sense, the possibilities offered by biotechnology for tissue engineering are extraordinary. In addition to science, I am interested in and concerned about the environment and sustainability. The idea of contributing to fight climate change was one of the motivations that led me to create BioTech Foods in 2017. We are pioneers in Spain in the development of cultured meat, yes, and ours is the first international project of cultured meat with pork protein.


What is your motto on this issue?

To create something innovative with a social conscience, that our research will serve to respond to humanitarian and environmental emergencies. I think this is a desire shared by most of my colleagues.


What is the definition of cultured meat?

Ethicameat’s cultured meat is a sustainable meat alternative, 100% animal origin, high protein, no antibiotics, no genetic alteration, and cruelty-free. I believe it is a unique food product that will revolutionize the way we eat meat.


How is it grown?

The key to the production system of this meat is in regenerative medicine. With the right environment, cells extracted from a living animal can live and multiply and grow properly in a bioreactor. This cell extraction is placed in a controlled environment of humidity and temperature so that the tissue continues to form through a natural process of cell proliferation. In our case, Ethicameat products are obtained 100% naturally from a tissue sample extracted painlessly from the animal. These cells proliferate in a controlled biological environment, in an identical way as they would do in the animal’s body, without any genetic modification in the whole process.


What does cultured meat taste like? How does it differ from conventional meat?

This is one of the main mistakes we face when talking about cultured meat, what does cultured meat taste like? And there is no single answer. It depends, let’s imagine that we have traditional pork and we cook it fresh, it will depend on the chosen part and how we cook it, if we make it, it will also depend on how we make it, it is not the same sausage, chorizo, ham or cured ham. What I mean by this, that the taste will depend on the elaboration process to which it is subjected, what we want to offer from BioTech Foods is a source of protein with a high sustainable biological value, and that allows the elaboration of attractive products for the consumer.


To picture what it would be like to grow cultured meat on a larger scale. What does a bioreactor look like? What does it do?

The bioreactor, to understand it, is the device that allows to maintain the necessary biological environment, with the right temperature and environmental conditions, to ease or accelerate cell growth. It is easy to imagine it, it’s a stainless-steel barrel very similar to those used to make the fermentation of wine, beer, and many other food products.


Can specific cow parts be grown, for example, a sirloin?

It’s not the objective of our project. Our mission is to produce a high biological value protein source as an alternative to conventional livestock farming, sustainable and that allows the production of attractive products for the consumer.


How much meat can be produced from its culture?

To give you an idea, the cells extracted from a pig in one year can produce the same amount as that obtained from 400 pigs in traditional livestock farming. This means a significant reduction in environmental impact, as the cultured meat will consume 99% less land, 75% less water, and produce 90% fewer emissions than a similar meat product today. And all this by avoiding animal slaughter.


Why do we have to eat cultured meat?

Because cultured meat is a sustainable alternative to the high cost of animal life and natural resources needed to meet the unstoppable demand for high biological value proteins. It is meat that respects animal welfare, reduces environmental impact, and is not exposed to pandemics, as the animals we sample are in perfect health and are not exposed to viruses or bacteria throughout the process. In this respect, science contributes once again to raise the levels of food safety and to protect our health as consumers.

Does it have the same nutritional value as traditional meat?

Animal-based proteins have high biological value because they contain all the essential amino acids we need. However, plant proteins lack some amino acids (or have them in small proportions) and therefore we must combine foods to achieve these deficiencies. Cultured meat contains all the essential amino acids, giving us the same biological value as traditional meat.


And can cultured meat be a solution to obesity?

Obesity is a pathology in which several factors influence it, not only due to diet but from this point of view yes, with Ethicameat the consumer will have within their reach a healthy product, rich in proteins, 100% natural and 0% fat in its composition.


How much does it cost now to produce cultured meat?

Our aim is to make the price of cultured meat accessible to the end consumer, as we understand that the best way to consume fewer natural resources is to involve as many people as possible in this food revolution. The final objective is that cultured meat will have a similar price to current meat, that the consumer will have the same cost of traditional sausages as those produced by Ethicameat. The escalation phase in which our project is now in, answers to this: to reach an industrial production volume and a cost that the consumer can afford.


How many years do we have to wait before we can see cultured meat on the market?

Once we have achieved industrial scale and regulatory compliance established by the European Union, we believe that cultured meat processed products will be a reality on our tables sooner than expected.


What types of product formats will be presented with this meat? Will other meats such as fish, pork, chicken, among others, also be included?

At Ethicameat we are currently working with pork protein to produce meat products such as meatballs, hamburgers, sausages, nuggets, slices of ham… With the technology developed at BioTech Foods, it would be possible in the future, to extend the catalogue of products of Ethicameat to poultry or beef.

Thank you, Mercedes, and all the BioTech Foods team. A special greeting to you and all the scientists, who through their researches, are moving forward toward a better future.