Quality & Food Safety of Cell-Based Meats

June 23, 2020

We are excited to partner with the Cultured Meat and Future Food podcast for a multi-part series highlighting the research being conducted by New Harvest research fellows. In this episode, Alex Shirazi interviews New Harvest Fellow Sam Peabody about how to keep cultured meat safe from food-borne pathogens. Transcript is below. 


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Diagram of Sam Peabody's breakdown of quality and food safety of cell based meat

Alex (00:00):

Thanks for joining us on the Cultured Meat and Future Food show. We’re excited to announce the New Harvest Fellowship series. Established in 2004, New Harvest is the non-profit research institution building the field of cellular agriculture. We’re partnering with New Harvest for a multi-part series on the Cultured Meat and Future Food Show. We’ve had conversations with members of New Harvest leadership previously on this show. Please see our episode with the Executive Director Isha Datar. We’re excited to have Sam Peabody as the guest for the second episode of the New Harvest Fellowship series.

Alex (00:38):

Samuel S. Peabody IV is a PhD student of animal science at Texas Tech University. His area of research includes the study of microbiology and food safety. His current studies are examining the safety aspects of cell cultured meat, poultry and seafood. When he’s not busy working in the lab, Sam spends his free time gaming and role playing with friends, lifting weights, hiking, and biking. Sam has always had an interest in cooking and baking, and is especially proud of his Tex-Mex recipes. This was a great and super informative episode, let’s jump right in.

Alex (01:21):

Sam, I’m excited to welcome you to the Cultured Meat and Future Food Show.

Sam (01:25):

Thanks for inviting me on, Alex. I appreciate being here. Excited.

Alex (01:28):

Sam, tell us a little bit about your background and when you actually first heard about cultured meat.

Sam (01:38):

So when I first heard about it, there was a press release. It might’ve been one of the ones that was done for Dr. Mark Post’s lab and the research and products that they had developed. At the time, I was still working on my undergraduate and food science. And at that time, I wasn’t really sure what I was wanting to do as a career. But I did know that I liked science, and food science had been a fit for me for awhile. So I kept working on my undergraduate degree in food science. During the last year in that program, I had the opportunity to do some work in a laboratory on Texas tech campus. It’s a laboratory that’s part of the International Center for Food Industry Excellence. While working there, I became acquainted with handling and preparing different kinds of media and agar for growing bacteria. I became familiar with a lot of the intricacies of food microbiology, and I worked there long enough that after a while I had the opportunity to apply for a Master’s program in Food Science at the same university under the professor who had hired me as aN assistant in the lab for undergraduate.

Alex (02:52):

Cool. And which university was this?

Sam (02:54):

Texas Tech University.

Alex (02:55):

Ok, Texas Tech. And so what year was this, that you first heard about that press release?

Sam (03:01):

Oh, gosh. That would have been years ago. I’m not going to give you a specific date because I honestly cannot recall. It’s been so long, it seems, maybe 2012, 2013, somewhere in that ballpark.

Alex (03:17):

Oh, interesting. Okay. So right around the time, actually, that Mark Post was making the announcements for his unveiling.

Sam (03:26):

Yeah. Yeah, it was, it was one of those press releases. That’s when I first heard about it. It was something that just was on the back burner in my head for a while. It wasn’t until I was in my Masters and I was starting to see how I could really be a part of the research community and really learn how to develop and get involved in the technology and not just be somebody who has a Bachelor’s degree in it, but a real scientist working on answering questions and curiosities and inventing solutions for feeding the world. It was at that point when I remembered that press release and I looked up more information about it and it led to me discovering New Harvest and a bunch of other things. Since then, it’s just been snowballing to the point where I’m here today.

Alex (04:20):

Your undergrad was in food science when you kind of transitioned to that lab setting. Was that a pretty unique thing for you to have this food science experience and be in the lab working on bacteria?

Sam (04:32):

Well, I wouldn’t call it unique. There are many schools across the nation where students involved in food science can get involved in a microbiology lab. What’s unique about the laboratory at the International Center for Food Industry Excellence is it’s actually a series of laboratories, and they are deeply rooted in the local culture and community, which has a lot to do with animal production and meat science. So there’s a deep connection to that, and we get a lot of exposure to meat science and food safety as applied to meat and poultry products. So that’s the focus in our laboratories. There’s three main laboratories that I’ve worked in. One is a conventional microbiology lab. We grow agar, we raised bacteria in agar. We count agar plates and we look at how many colonies of bacteria there are on each plate. And we just do the basic run of the mill ordinary things that you would experience in a microbiology lab. We have some really cool tools in that lab as well. We have some immunomagnetic separators where you take a magnetic bead, you coat it with something that only attaches to a certain type of bacteria and you can coat these little magnetic beads, and they’ll only stick to those specific types of bacteria. So they get coated in them. Then you can use a magnetic field to separate out those bacteria from the rest of your solution. It’s a really cool thing.

Alex (06:05):

Wow, okay.

Sam (06:07):

Other things we have in that lab, we have just about every kind of agar you can think of for food safety in that lab, and over the years, I’ve gotten a chance to make quite a few different varieties. The other labs that we have, one is devoted to DNA, RNA qPCR, all those different types of molecular methods that are used. We’ve done a lot of work developing and improving rapid methods, going back and forth between those two labs. The third lab is the pathogen lab, and that’s a lab where we bring in equipment that is identical to real equipment used in the meat and poultry industry for processing. We’re able to incorporate actual live pathogens into the processes and steps to evaluate the performance of certain interventions and certain control strategies with the actual foodborne pathogens. So when I say intervention, what I’m talking about is a step, a process, that reduces the concentration of microorganisms in a food. For instance, that could be smoking a Turkey at 400 degrees for 20, 30 minutes, or that could be sous vide cooking packages of hotdogs to mitigate the risk of listeria monocytogenes contamination. An intervention is usually a thermal process, but there can be chemical or even biological approaches. Interventions happen throughout the process of getting food produced from farm to fork, so we evaluate the performance in that life.

Alex (07:55):

Wow, cool. Okay, so would you say that this type of lab structure is something that Texas Tech specializes in? Or is this fairly common in terms of food safety microbiology?

Sam (08:07):

I would say the way we have it arrayed and organized is unlike most other schools out there. Just the amount of real estate that we have is substantial. We’re talking rows and rows and rows and rows of benches. We can have a thousand samples on benches for processing and have a team of 10, 11, 15 people working together to process all the samples and get them loaded up – so we can do very large scale testing. There’s plenty of other schools that can do it just as well. But I don’t imagine there are many schools that can do it better.

Alex (08:43):

So I recently did a very, very basic food safety course. And even from that very basic food safety course, I’ll walk into a restaurant now and I’ll notice, like, wow, actually this is not to code, that is not to code. And then I’ll be a little bit down. And you’d be surprised, like, some of the basic stuff’s like six inches off the ground and all this kind of stuff is not even implemented in some of these restaurants that I was going to in downtown Berkeley, which I guess in some ways, not to be surprised, but for you being kind of, you know, really an expert when it comes to bacteria and especially in relation to food safety, do you ever walk into a restaurant and think ‘okay, this is definitely not good’?

Sam (09:32):

Yes. There are specific experiences that are an immediate red flag for me. The biggest one for me is there was this restaurant and I won’t say where it is located. And as soon as I walked in, I could smell this musty smell. And it’s the smell of rancid oil. Now there’s a couple of reasons a smell like that can occur. If it’s a very old restaurant, it probably just needs a real deep cleaning. But if it’s a relatively new restaurant, let’s say less than 20 years old, that is just a huge warning flag because it means that even if they’re cleaning the countertops and the areas that are regularly used, it means that there are some other areas that they haven’t given attention to in a long time. For example, every grill, every grill top, every cooking surface has these large intake vents above them that pull up all the moisture and steam and oil that gets evaporated during the cooking process. And that oil is important because it can actually build up in the ventilation ducks. And so in some restaurants where this oil builds up on the walls, on surfaces, it collects and it gets old and it creates this musty, rancid smell.

Sam (10:58):

Another thing that can cause that are pests, vermin, roaches have this oily smell to them that’s distinct. So when I go into a restaurant, if I can smell that, that’s, for me, that’s a red flag. That’s saying, okay, something in this restaurant has not been taken care of in a long while. And if that’s not being taken care of, what else aren’t they not taking care of? And so if I don’t notice that right away, okay, I’m reassured. The next thing I usually look for in a restaurant is I look to see if there’s anything on the floor in the kitchen. If I can see the kitchen and I can see the floor, that’s usually a good indication to me, whether or not the team that’s working there, are they cleaning as they go. If it’s during rush hour and I’m coming in in the last 45 minutes of it, I won’t think about it too much because obviously when you’re working and you’re going full speed, you may not have time to clean them. But if it’s, say, at three in the afternoon, and I go to a burger joint and I see a restaurant that has obviously got something that’s been sitting on the floor for a while, you know, just some scraps of lettuce from preparing a salad, or who knows what, if I see that my impression is ‘okay, somebody is not taking the time to clean as they go. What else is not happening in here?’ And I wouldn’t say that that’s a reason to not go to a place because any restaurant can have these kinds of violations at any time. It really comes down to the management and how consistent they are at addressing their problems. That’s why it’s great to just look at local news reports and see where there are health reports coming out and if the restaurants that do get that do get marked or written up, if they actually do correct those actions. You can see which ones are repeat offenders.

Alex (12:48):

Wow, yeah, I’ll definitely be checking that out, especially now that restaurants are starting to slowly open up from COVID-19. So transitioning to what you’re currently working on now through the New Harvest Fellowship, what are you working on and why is it important for cell cultured meat?

Sam (12:65):

Okay. So right now, what I’m working on is looking at the food safety aspects of cell cultured meat, because so far there is limited discussion on how safe these products, and when I’m talking safety, I’m focusing in on the microbiological aspects of it. When we talk about food safety, that’s eight out of 10 of what we’re talking about. Sometimes we’re looking at chemical or physical hazards, but that’s rare, seven out of 10, eight out of 10, whatever number you want to use. Most of the time, we’re looking at the microbiological aspects of food safety. What my work is doing is looking at what are the ways in which we can control and minimize bacterial pathways into these foods, and how can we control them in such a way that the establishments that are producing these products are still able to deliver a product that is satisfactory and appealing to consumers.

Sam (13:63):

Because there is no public information out on that, we’re starting with just the very basics of what can be done. We’re building growth models, and we’re going to use those growth models as a way of saying, okay, once we see how bacteria grow in this situation, then we can start to see what we can do about it. So going to very basic things, I put bacteria in this growth media that’s used for culturing bovine cells. I put bacteria in there and I see how fast does it grow? When does it become apparent in that situation? And how quickly would we need to be able to respond to that? How quickly would we be able to detect that? Those are the kinds of things we’re starting with. Later on we’ll want to talk about, well, if we do have this kind of problem, what can we do to stop it? Because right now we’re talking about in the growth stage, but then there’s also, on the other end of it, when we’re starting to package process and put this product on the store shelves, how long is it going to last on those store shelves before bacteria that do get in manage to spoil the product? What kind of risks will there be, like, the processing facility that produces cell cultured meat? Let’s say you have a plant that wants to specialize in cell cultured seafood, for example, and they’re wanting to produce some kind of cell-based sushi or cell cultured sushi, and that’s a product that’s served raw, how long can that stay on the shelf and still be regarded as safe? If it’s going to be incorporated into a sushi roll, then it’s going to be exposed to other bacterial organisms. My first thoughts are rice. Bacillus cereus is commonly implicated in rice. Could that get a boost or a benefit from that? It’s under refrigeration, sushi is refrigerated, so listeria monocytogenes, which is something I studied during my Masters, that bacteria can grow refrigerated temperatures. Would that be a risk in cell cultured seafood, cell cultured sushi?

Alex (15:76):

So theoretically it could actually be better or worse in terms of the amount of bacteria that is collected when you’re comparing it to traditional fish? Or is it a totally different thing and can’t really make a comparison?

Sam (16:29):

We will make comparisons, but we’ll let the evidence speak for itself. As far as I can tell the culture media are rich in sugar and some of the supplements that are used supply an abundant amount of protein and or amino acids. So it’s a great environment for cultivating bacteria. I would not be surprised if all kinds of bacteria can turn up. What we’ve really got to look at is how well will these establishments maintain hygiene at their production plants. If they do a great job, a stellar job, of maintaining hygiene, there is an opportunity for the level of contamination and the risk of contamination to be lower because they’re not harvesting from live animals. Live animal harvesting involves not only processing and handling and moving the inside and the outside of an animal. If you’ve ever been on a farm you encounter lots of poop. So there’s poop on the animal and it gets washed off, the hides get washed off, they get cleaned before they’re ever on the kill floor. Nevertheless, it’s possible for bacteria that were abundant on the animal to then be transferred later on in the path. And the goal with cell cultured, meat and poultry and seafood is to do it starting from cells so there’s no viable way of cultivating these cells that would tolerate the presence of bacteria. I don’t expect that they can cultivate these cells with any amount of bacteria presence. I wouldn’t expect it. I know that sometimes they get mycobacteria in these cell cultures and that sometimes ruins the student’s project because it turns out that it was in the original samples and they have to start all over because the microbacteria are pervasive and really sneaky like that. But yeah, it’ll be interesting to see how well these cell culture meat producers maintain sanitary conditions. I believe they have the potential to be very clean and to be very effective at controlling bacteria in their foods. But we got to see it first.

Alex (18:38):

I’ve heard people at conferences with an industry say like, ‘Oh, well, there won’t be any bacteria because you are culturing it in this sterile environment’. And they even go as far as to say like 0% bacteria. But I think that any scientists using 0%, especially when it comes to bacteria, is totally wrong. There’s always going to be a little bit, or is that not the case? It could be 0%?

Sam (19:02):

I’m reminded of the challenges that microchip manufacturers have to go to. It’s a funny tangent, but bear with me on. So the microchips that are in our computers that make up our processors and all the other little bits and bobs of a computer. These chips have to be constructed in very intricate and detailed way. They’re manufactured in these clean rooms, these huge factory floors. And you see the people that are going in there and they’ve got N95 masks and they’ve got hairnets and they’ve got these lab coats. They may even have special booties on, and they have certain processes for entering and exiting.

Alex (19:41):

This reminds me of those Intel ads with the guys that are pretty much in hazmat suits.

Sam (19:46):

Exactly, exactly. Yeah. They have these kinds of clean rooms. It might surprise you, but a lot of food processors have a similar dress that they wear. Not to the same degree of protection, but they do wear substantial coverings over themselves. They wear gloves, they wear hair nets, they may wear masks. It depends where you are in the world, different countries have different regulations. Nevertheless, all countries have several layers of protection that keep people from unintentionally contaminating food because people themselves carry bacteria. A good organism to look at, and one that we are looking at, one I was working with before COVID-19 popped up was staphylococcus aureus – you know it as the cause of staph infections. There’s a version of it out there called MRSA methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus that scares people because it’s resistant to certain types of antibiotics. The thing about staphylococcus aureus is that bacteria is colonized on a significant portion of the human population. I see numbers around 40% of all people carry it. So it’s nothing to be alarmed about. Obviously it’s not making people sick all the time, but it has the potential to when it grows in food and it produces a certain toxin. And so naturally if you’re going to have people working at your processing plant, if you’re bringing in people, you’re bringing in what’s on people and we can’t always see or tell what falls off of people while they’re working in that kind of space. So as long as there’s a human element, there’s going to be a microbial element.

Alex (21:31):

I think of brewing beer, like, there’s these big tanks and it’s very much separated. Would you say that there’s still opportunity for bacteria to get in even that kind of image?

Sam (21:42):

Well, I’m glad you brought up that analogy because I had the chance to volunteer some of my time for a brewery. The nice thing about brewing beer is yeast are very good at what they do. They respond very well when you treat them right and give them the right amount of love and care and attention. Anybody who’s ever brewed their own beer has a certain affectionate feel towards the yeast that are doing the work making delicious, delicious beer for them. And as it happens, yeast have had this unique quality to them where they’re able to fend off their competitors. Most microorganisms have one or two or three tools that they can use to sort of say, ‘Hey, get outta here, this is my space’. Some bacteria like lactic acid bacteria produce what are called bacteriocins, and they’re essentially a sort of anti microbial. In fact, penicillin, you know, the classic example of an antibiotic, it was discovered, why? Because a form of mold was producing it on Petri plates. And so yeast are able to protect the wort that they’re incorporated into because there’s a high concentration of them that’s added. They start growing in there. If there’s anything else that gets in the yeast are able to kick it out.

Sam (23:04):

Will see a proliferation stage where large vats of mammalian cells are cultivated? I can’t imagine it’ll be like a brewery. What I recall, and this is going back to some old press releases, I recall in one image, there was a storage unit and it had trays and trays and trays and trays stacked on top of each other. And each tray had so many wells in which cell cultures were being produced. And I don’t know if that was during their differentiation or proliferation or some combination there too. Nevertheless, I see it as an example of what can be done. If instead of imagining, if you will, instead of a 96 well plate, imagine a larger container, either designed for two dimensional or three dimensional growth, I won’t conjecture – that’s up to the biotechnologists that are working on solving 2D and 3D problems to figure out. But I imagine some version of one of those approaches being scalable, responding to what method works best. Having on one side, an input – it could be a hose that then breaks up into a bunch of little hoses with backflow preventers that then feed a bunch of different cases all at once, so that they can be collected later for forming a larger product. Or it could be something more elegant where it’s like a vacuum bag that contains enough of the cells at the start and once it gets going and going and going, it sort of inflates with cells. I could imagine something like that being a possibility.

Sam (24:43):

I can’t imagine it will be exactly like a brewery tank, although if somebody figures out how to do it that way then great. I don’t know that it will look like that. Can that kind of environment be handled in such a way as to prevent any kind of contamination? I think so. I think there are techniques that will need to be developed to overcome the challenges of that. But I really see having a modular unit of some predetermined volume, say a liter, that has all the surfacing or three-dimensional surfacing that’s necessary to cultivate these cells. And I imagine a large number of those being stacked or arrayed together that can then be at some later point in the process combined or integrated in some way that allows them to then produce a single unit of product and for there to be a sort of cycle of life cycle of these units, so that they go back and forth. That’s how we’ve seen it done and work. And if a small amount of bacteria were to get into a proliferation tank, like what you said, a hundred gallon tank, a thousand gallon tank, a small amount of bacteria can very rapidly multiply, and it may not be detectable until it’s too late and the whole batch needs to be thrown out.

Alex (26:01):

And that could be very costly.

Sam (26:02):

Yes. And that’s why I see being able to produce these cells, proliferate these cells, in parallel is great, because if we can limit the amount that you lose at a time, you can keep from having a huge loss. And it’s an optimization problem too, because if you work too small a scale, then you’re having to clean and manage and maintain too many pieces of equipment. And that costs you too much time and money. So there’s a precarious balance. And right now we don’t know if there is a place in between where we can truly balance and make everything happen or not.

Alex (26:36):

So at a very high level, what would be one of the methods of detecting whether bacteria has breached a small, let’s say, a one liter or a smaller vessel, for example?

Sam (26:48):

Well, the options available to cell cultured meat, poultry, and seafood establishments are the same that would be available to any other producer that’s out there. There are a variety of different methods. There are rapid methods which use DNA or RNA extraction from the product, and you can use those to quickly identify whether or not there is something foreign present by just having a template in the master mix that binds to the bacterial DNA or bacterial RNA, whatever it is you’re looking for. You can approach that in a qPCR way and get a very strong signal very quickly. There are some limits to detection, though. With those methods, I think the limit is somewhere around two logs of bacteria. And when I say log of bacteria, I’m talking about taking the log base 10 of a number and that’s your results. So if I was saying log base 10 of 10 that would be one, log base 10 of a 100 would be two, log of 10,000 would be four. And so there’s a limit of about two logs, I believe, so you can’t detect the bacteria if they are under two colonies per milliliter. There are other methods out there that are a little more sensitive. What comes to my mind are just traditional plate counts, and these can be done a variety of ways. There’s also a technique that I try to avoid using because it’s very time consuming, called the most probable number – that can be sensitive enough to get you counts even when the concentration is below two logs per milliliters. However, those latter two methods are not rapid. Those methods take at least a day, if not several days, to obtain results. It really depends on what you’re trying to look for. What we would need in this kind of environment is some way of being able to see, within hours, whether or not there’s contamination so that we can throw out what’s no longer salvageable and save what is, assuming, of course, there is anything that can be saved. We have no intervention strategies as yet for controlling bacteria and these environments, aside from using large amounts of antibiotics.

Alex (29:08):

So this might be a good time to transition to one of the audience questions. So we actually have a couple audience questions that have come in. One of them is, ‘will it be free from antibiotics?’ So once we do have a product, will that product be free of antibiotics?

Sam (29:28):

Well, it will be free of antibiotics for the consumer, I can guarantee you that. There won’t be any antibiotics in the product by the time it reaches a store shelf. Or to put another way, there better not be, or the USDA is going to come notify the establishment of what they found and ask what’s going on.

Alex (29:49):

So maybe this is a good opportunity to demystify a couple of, I guess, potentially misconceptions in the industry. People believe that it’s okay to have antibiotics in food, but in reality, if antibiotics are ever used during livestock production, they have to wait a pretty tremendous kind of factor to make sure that it’s out of the system of the animal before they’re sent to slaughter. Is that right?

Sam (30:24):

Yes. I’m not going to go too much in the detail of while the animal was alive. I just don’t have as much familiarity with that side, as I would like to. I can tell you that Food Safety Inspection Service, FSIS, they will take a swab of the kidneys of cattle after harvesting. Those kidneys swabs that they take, they send those out to a laboratory where they do analysis, and they look for residues of things, including antibiotics. They do all these kinds of tests to verify whether or not the meat is suitable for human consumption, because there should not be any antibiotics in the meat by the time it reaches the consumer.

Alex (31:27):

Would we potentially be using antibiotics in the manufacturing or development process?

Sam (31:33):

Well, that will depend on what the FDA and the USDA advise. And if these companies choose to use some kind of anti-microbial for that purpose or an antibiotic, they will need to prove to those regulators that it’s safe. And the case of the FDA, where they’re interested in that, and this goes back to the joint agreement that was released last year, the FDA is going to have oversight during what we would call the proliferation stage when these cells are acquired and are brought up and cultivated and delivered to the establishment. Anything up to that point has FDA oversight. After that, once the product has transitioned into what would appear to be meat or seafood or poultry, then the USDA has some oversight for that. Whatever intervention an establishment has will be reviewed by one or both of those regulators. So they will need to prove that it works and that it’s safe and that there’s nothing that gets passed on to the consumer. Do I foresee there being a way of doing it without antibiotics? I would like to see them be able to do that because I don’t know if it can be done economically if they’re using antibiotics at full scale all the time.

Alex (33:07):

Could we potentially use human blood to replace FBS?

Sam (33:11):

That seems to me a bit wild. And it’s an interesting thought because there’s a lot of tissue culture research that does rely on a human serum and it’s possible that we could rely on it. I don’t expect we will, because it introduces the possibility of spreading human pathogens into our food supply. It just comes down to, we’ll say, for example, if somebody has come down with Hepatitis A and they may not know about it, and if this serum was collected from them, it would need to go through testing. It would need to go through all these kinds of verification. No, I don’t foresee that that would be viable because all the things you’d have to do to make it safe enough to actually be appropriate for use in food supply would be prohibitively expensive. And I’m not sure there are many people who could be convinced to buy a product that was grown with a human serum. I don’t know. Maybe there is a market out there for that. I don’t know.

Alex (34:15):

Cool. And then the last audience question that we’ll take on. ‘Does clean meat contain vitamin B12?’.

Sam (34:21):

We would need to look at a sample and test it to say for sure. There’s a reasonable probability that it could. After all, what’s being created are the same tissues that we would expect to find in the representative animal. So if we’re talking about beef and beef as a source of B12, and we’re looking at cell cultured beef, I would expect to see it there. I would be surprised if it wasn’t.

Alex (34:46):

We covered a little bit about antibiotics. We covered quite a bit about what these bioreactors could look like. On a personal level, what are you most interested in when it comes to seeing this future food in combination with the cellular agriculture technology?

Sam (35:04):

Okay. I like sushi and it’s definitely my top five favorite foods. I’d say I put it up there.

Alex (35:15):

What kind of sushi?

Sam (35:16):

I really like sashimi and I like those crunchy rolls. Those are two that really stick out in my mind. There’s this little place in Austin, Texas that does all-you-can-eat sushi. And I haven’t been there in years, but I went there with my friends once and just had an amazing time and I ordered a lot of sashimi that night. There’s something they had on that menu that I guess they covered it with like a little bit of lemongrass or lemon juice. I’m not sure, but it complimented the flavor of the seafood very well. So I’m excited for the possibility of there being cell-based seafood, cell-based sushi, that’s much safer and interesting to eat. I’ve never tried fugu. I’ve read about the risk.

Alex (36:04):

That’s the blowfish, right?

Sam (36:05):

Yeah. And every once in a while, an improperly prepared piece may contain tetrodotoxin. So it’s very risky for that. And I think it’d be really cool to be able to try a puffer fish that didn’t have it. And of course, I’m talking about, like, the real superficial reasons when it comes to seafood, there’s other big ones. Like the ways that cell cultured seafood can really relieve stress on fish populations, especially vulnerable fish populations. Like what will happen to the population of Chilean sea bass when a cell cultured version of sea bass comes on the market? Would people pay a premium for that over what they were paying before, and will that species be able to recover? That’s another interesting appeal. As far as sustainability, cause that’s another thing that gets brought up, whether or not it’s sustainable to do so. And I’m not about that. I recently completed a class on food security and we looked in detail at the Sustainable Development Goals that were developed by the FAO. And there’s this problem. Well, I wouldn’t say ‘problem’. There’s this challenge on us to use the same land and water that we’ve always had or less, and use it to go from feeding 7 billion people to 9 billion people by approximately 2050. And I really hope that cell cultured meat, poultry, and seafood are a way that can allow us to address issues of hunger, not just for keeping developed nations fed, but also giving underdeveloped nations an opportunity to provide their people with protein, from a source that they didn’t have before. Protein malnourishment is still prevalent in a lot of countries, and when it’s combined with other factors like lack of access to sanitary water, for instance, it can be devastating. And just being able to get access to a small amount of protein can make a huge difference.

Alex (38:08):

I would be totally in for an all-you-can-eat cell culture sushi bar.

Sam (38:13):

Where it’s growing as you order it?

Alex (38:18):

Yeah! So back to your research, what kind of insights could your research unfold and who, in terms of category of either a company or person or even government, who would benefit the most?

Sam (38:23):

Okay. So with the data that we’re wanting to create right now, it’s all about detection. Where we can detect foodborne pathogens, we can save companies money by protecting them from having to do a recall. Because obviously if there was a contaminated batch, we’ll say – let’s go back to the talk about proliferation and tanks and all that. So let’s say you do have several different tanks that are processed independently of each other. They’re in relatively small portions, but for whatever reason, one tank didn’t get cleaned up properly. Some bacteria grew, but they didn’t quite grow to a level of where it was visibly obvious. And then that spread further down the line where you combined these batches into one larger batch. What I want to do is create data that could be used to prevent that kind of event from happening. Because if it’s a one liter unit that was contaminated and we can remove that and we can save the other 999 liters from the thousand liter batch, that’s huge. As they say, an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. What I’m researching is what are the strategies we can learn to prevent contamination and minimize risk before it happens, because that’ll be crucial for startups. It’ll be beneficial for them because they’ll be able to see and predict where, when and how to implement safety controls. They’ll be able to anticipate what they should do if they do have a contamination event. Not only that, but we’ll look at it further down the line when it’s coming into actual mechanical processing and it’s being treated like traditional products are being handled. And there’s the dissemination of information on that end. All these establishments, all of these producers, will need to prove that their methods for packaging, storing, and delivering food to the market shelves are safe and they’ll want to establish quality dates, sell by dates, things of that nature. And my research will benefit them. It’ll benefit regulators. And we’re looking at all this evidence-based. So we’ll be able to find solutions that make regulators happy, make producers happy and can reassure consumers.

Alex (40:54):

So we are in the middle of a pandemic. Now, how has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the state of research and your lab specifically?

Sam (41:04):

I recall back in late February, early March, when this pandemic really got on everybody’s radar, it had already been in the US I think for a month or two by then. Our school was quick to come up with a plan. They announced that we weren’t coming back after spring break. I didn’t have much time to put up my projects, but the thing about Lubbock, Texas, is we weren’t a hot spot right away, but then didn’t have any testing happening, so who knew what was going on. The actions that our university took pretty much froze all laboratory work for me. I’ve only gone to the pathogen lab to check on things every once in a while to make sure our equipment is intact. I am the pathogen lab manager, so if anything happens in that lab, it is my responsibility. Otherwise, yeah, I’m working straight from home.

Alex (41:57):

I know that a lab is probably one of the – especially a pathogen lab – will probably be one of, actually, the most sterile environments you could probably be, right?

Sam (42:06):


Alex (42:07):

You can get in touch with Sam on LinkedIn and learn more about New Harvest at www.new-harvest.org. Sam, thank you so much for being with us today on the Cultured Meat and Future Food Show.

Sam (42:20):

Thank you, Alex.

Alex (42:21):

This is your host, Alex, and we look forward to being with you on our next episode.


Transcribed by New Harvest volunteer Bianca Le. 

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