LONDON-British scientists have joined the race to produce meat grown in the lab rather than reared on the hoof.

Scientists at the University of Bath have grown animal cells on blades of grass, in a step towards cultured meat. If the process can be reproduced on an industrial scale, meat lovers might one day be tucking into a slaughter-free supply of “bacon”.

The researchers say the UK can move the field forward through its expertise in medicine and engineering.

Lab-based meat products are not yet on sale, though a US company, Just, has said its chicken nuggets, grown from cells taken from the feather of chicken that is still alive, will soon be in a few restaurants. Chemical engineer Dr Marianne Ellis, of the University of Bath, sees cultured meat as “an alternative protein source to feed the world”. Cultured pig cells are being grown in her laboratory, which could one day lead to bacon raised entirely off the hoof.

In the future, you would take a biopsy from a pig, isolate stem (master) cells, grow more cells, then put them into a bioreactor to massively expand them, says postgraduate student Nick Shorten of Aberystwyth University.

“And the pig’s still alive and happy and you get lots of bacon at the end.” To replicate the taste and texture of bacon will take years of research. For structure, the cells must be grown on a scaffold.

2013: First lab-grown burger, created by a team in the Netherlands at a cost of €250,000 - largely due to the time and labour needed to turn millions of tiny cells into meat

December 2018: A “steak” grown from cells in the lab and not requiring the slaughter of a cow was produced in Israel. It cost $50 for a small thin strip, but, according to its makers, needs perfecting. At Bath, they’re experimenting with something that’s entirely natural - grass. They’re growing rodent cells, which are cheap and easy to use, on scaffolds of grass, as a proof of principle.

“The idea was to essentially, rather than feeding a cow grass and then us eating the meat - why don’t we, in quotation marks, ‘feed our cells grass’,” says Scott Allan, a postgraduate student in chemical engineering. “We use it as a scaffold for them to grow on - and we then have an edible scaffold that can be incorporated into the final product.

The end product would be pure muscle tissue - basically, lean mince, rather than something with the taste and texture of a chop or steak, which means adding fat cells and connective cells to give it “a bit more taste”.

For cultured meat to be available widely in the future, cells will need to be grown on a very large scale in a commercial facility.

“What we’re doing here is looking to design bioreactors, and the bioprocess around the bioreactors, to grow muscle cells on a large scale that is economical and safe and high quality, so we can supply the muscle cells as cultured meats to as many people as want it,” says Dr Ellis.