Fetal calf blood hits record $615 a liter as research labs secure crucial commodity

It is one of the lesser known by-products of Australia’s cattle industry, but its value is on the rise and has more than doubled since 2019.

Fetal calf blood, which is mostly used in medical research and pharmaceutical industries, has this month reached a record price of $615 a litre, ex-abattoir.

Mecardo analyst Adrian Ladaniwskyj said supply of the commodity was tight and the record price was an indicator of Australia’s cattle herd rebuilding after years of drought.

“The ongoing, strong fetal calf blood market indicates that cattle producers are holding onto their females,” he said.

“The amount of cows getting sent to slaughterhouses in Australia has reduced, and as a result of less cows getting slaughtered there’s less calf serum getting produced, so the price goes up.”

The value of fetal calf blood is on the rise.(Landline: MLA/Mercado)

Cattle producers do not gain financially from the rising value of fetal bovine serum (FBS), but slaughterhouses do.

Essentially it is a lucrative surprise for slaughterhouses when a fetus shows up in the processing.

Weekly national slaughter data from Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) shows that in May the ratio of female cattle getting slaughtered fell to just 36 per cent, compared to 45 per cent the same time last year and 52 per cent in May 2020.

Critical commodity for research community

Principal virologist at the Berrimah Veterinary Laboratory in Darwin, Dr Richard Weir, works with fetal bovine serum almost on a daily basis.

“It can be used in universities, vaccine manufacturers need it, and here in Darwin we use FBS for a range of cell cultures to isolate viruses for our diagnostic or research purposes,” he said.

“To carry out [biosecurity] surveillance here in Darwin, which is important to the whole country, we need to grow cell cultures.

Man hands hold petri dish of meat grown in a lab.
Fetal bovine serum is also used by companies making cell based meats.(Supplied: Mark Post)

Dr Weir said in recent years labs had been paying $800-$1,200 a liter for FBS.

“This news [of record ex-abattoir prices] hasn’t filtered through to us, but we aren’t looking to buy a batch at the moment,” he said.

“We bought a 100-liter batch about five years ago and we’re roughly half way through it. So in probably the next 12 or 24 months we’ll be looking to buy a new batch.”

Cash injection for struggling slaughterhouses

Adrian Ladaniwskyj said Australian FBS sold for a premium because of the cattle industry’s disease-free status.

He said with slaughterhouses struggling with high cattle prices and rising input costs, the sale of FBS would be helping their bottom line.

“There’s a positive story here because not only is it used for a noble cause — where what could have been a waste-product is used in medical research to better people’s lives — at the same time it’s providing a bit of extra cash flow for processors [abattoirs] who are doing it quite tough at the moment.”

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