(Updated April 1, 2020) | Cultured meat—also called lab-grown, cell-based, and clean meat—could be on dinner tables sooner than once thought. The futuristic cellular agriculture industry is only becoming busier. Some say lab meat could be available as soon as 2021.
What Is Lab Meat?
Lab-grown meat is produced by in vitro cultivation of animal cells. Cellular agriculturists collect a small sample of cells from an animal. These can come from swabbing skin tissue, a feather, etc. The cells must have a rapid rate of proliferation, like embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells, myosattelite cells, or myoblasts.
The cells are placed into a nutrient-rich solution, called a growth medium, in a controlled cultivator. This causes the stem cells to act as they would if they were still in the animal’s body—to multiply, ideally quickly and into high densities.
The result is an edible product that looks, cooks, and tastes like animal meat because, biologically, it is animal meat. The major difference is that an animal does not need to be killed to make it.
Is Lab Meat Vegan?
Lab-grown meat is meat, meaning it is not vegan. However, the concept may create a “loophole” for some due to the fact that it can be made without the slaughter of animals.
Not all lab-grown meat production is free from animal use. Dutch scientist Mark Post, who presented the world’s first lab-grown burger at a press conference in 2013, grew cells in an animal-based broth to make his clean meat patty.
He said the most efficient method of cellular agriculture involves the slaughter of animals. “Eventually my vision is that you have a limited herd of donor animals in the world that you keep in stock and that you get your cells from there,” Post told The Telegraph.
Fetal bovine serum (FBS) poses an issue for vegans interested in lab-grown meat. FBS comes from the blood of a cow fetus and it’s the most widely used serum-supplement in the industry for eukaryotic cells.
However, some producers—like food tech company JUST—make a point of keeping the entire process cruelty-free. In a video, JUST shows how it developed its lab-grown chicken. “For those very first cells, it was important to us how we got those cells, not just that we got the cells,” JUST said. “We came up with the idea to use one feather from the single best chicken that we could find.”
The team waited for the chicken, whose name is Ian, to naturally drop a feather. The researchers then collected cells from this feather, enabling Ian to live on unharmed, but significantly important to the cause. The JUST team feasted on real chicken nuggets while Ian wandered around their feet, alive and well.
Ryan Bethencourt—co-founder of the world’s leading life science accelerator, IndieBio—believes lab-grown meat can bridge the gap between people’s hunger for meat and their desire to do less harm.
“The aim is to ensure that people keep eating what they love, but to produce it in a way so it’s not damaging the planet,” Bethencourt, who is a vegan, told the Guardian.
Is Lab Meat Safe?
Conventional meat comes with its risks. In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) named red meat a Group 2 carcinogen, meaning it probably causes cancer in humans. WHO placed processed meat like bacon in the Group 1 category, meaning it is carcinogenic to humans. Asbestos and tobacco smoking are also in this category.
Post believes lab-grown meat could be safer for consumption than traditional meat. The creator of the first clean meat burger said to The Atlantic, “We gain greater control over what the meat consists of, for example, its fat content.”
“And the reduction in the number of farmed animals reduces the chance of zoonosis,” he added, referring to infectious diseases that can be passed from animals to humans.
JUST holds a similar view. It said in its video, “One of the biggest points of comparison between what we’re doing and the old way of doing things is food safety.”
JUST’s video displays a list of the risks associated with conventional meat. These include salmonella, swine flu, giardia, fecal contamination, campylobacter, mad cow disease, foot-and-mouth disease, and avian chlamydiosis. It points out that clean meat carries none of these risks. “And when you make that comparison, the difference is staggering,” the company says.
Physician Neal Barnard, founding president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), believes lab-grown meat could be fortified to include extra nutrients like B12, in the same way vitamin D is added to orange juice.
The FDA and the USDA announced in March that they have established a framework to regulate clean meat. It’s still in its preliminary stages but that hasn’t curbed interest in the concept of clean meat. A study released by The Good Food Institute found that 66 percent of Americans are open to eating meat made in a lab.
Lab Meat Gets a Lobby
Five food companies working within the cellular agriculture industry recently banded together to form the Alliance for Meat, Poultry & Seafood Innovation (AMPS Innovation).
AMPS Innovation aims to educate consumers and stakeholders about the industry and look at effective marketing for their products. The companies are also working with the government to establish a regulatory framework.
The founding members include Fork & Goode, JUST, and Memphis Meats, as well as cell-based seafood producers BlueNalu and Finless Foods. Representatives from these companies have met once a week for the last year to discuss obstacles faced by the industry.
The alliance has formed at an apt time, suggests Lou Cooperhouse, CEO of BlueNalu. “This industry is maturing and is a lot more near-term than was thought of in the last year or in the past,” Cooperhouse said in a statement. “This is not something that is 10 years away. It is something that is short-term.”
The Future of Meat
Lab-grown meat is not commercially available yet, but its launch may not be far off. A number of cultured meat developers have created prototype samples for testing.
Food tech startup Aleph Farms’ cultured meat passed its initial taste test. The lab-grown “beef” is made using soya beans. Developers use cultured cow muscle cells within soya bean protein to mimic the texture and taste of beef.
A recent report by global consultancy AT Kearney stated that by 2040, most of the meat people eat will not come from slaughtered animals. Sixty percent of meat will be either plant-based or cultivated in a lab.
“The large-scale livestock industry is viewed by many as an unnecessary evil,” the report said. “With the advantages of novel vegan meat replacements and cultured meat over conventionally produced meat, it is only a matter of time before they capture a substantial market share.
It later added, “Cultured meat will win in the long run.”
Traditional animal agriculture leaves an undeniable mark on the planet. It’s resource-intensive and generates huge amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) named meat “the world’s most urgent problem,” saying that using animals for food has “brought us to the verge of catastrophe.”
“The greenhouse gas footprint of animal agriculture rivals that that of every car, truck, bus, ship, airplane, and rocket ship combined,” UNEP said. “There is no pathway to achieve the Paris climate objectives without a massive decrease in the scale of animal agriculture.”
Swapping to lab-grown meat could alleviate some of this damage. The CEO of Memphis Meats Uma Valeti said to the Guardian, “If the US switched to Memphis Meats beef, we would expect the greenhouse gas reduction to be like taking almost 23m cars off the road. One burger could save the amount of water used in 51 showers.”
Feeding the World With Lab Meat
Tim Noakesmith is the founder of VOW, which is working on lab-grown kangaroo meat. He believes cell-based meat could help feed the world’s growing population. “It’s pretty insane, but it’s super important, it’s incredibly important,” Noakesmith told Nine News. “We’ve reached the scale capacity in terms of creating food using traditional animal agriculture. We see that meat consumption is going to be rising and rising over coming decades.”
VOW says its lab-grown kangaroo meat could be in supermarkets by the end of 2022. It’s also speaking with “top-tier” chefs in Australia to explore the incorporation of its product into meals.
Other lab meat producers have similar goals. Japanese startup IntegriCulture Inc. wants to see its slaughter-free foie gras served in restaurants by 2021 and on the consumer market by 2023.
CEO of JUST Josh Tetrick took to Twitter in October to tease the launch of JUST’s lab-grown chicken nuggets. The company hasn’t announced concrete plans. Tetrick took the cruelty-free nuggets to the UK in January 2019 so that English TV presenter Helen Skelton-Myler could taste-test them. Tetrick explained, “It is a nugget that didn’t require killing a chicken and that’s the way all meat should be. We don’t need to choose between veggie burgers and a real burger.”
Even the meat industry is clocking on to the notion. Agricultural giant Cargill invested in lab-grown meat company Aleph Farms earlier last year. Cargill, which controls more than 20 percent of America’s domestic meat market, has also invested in Memphis Meats.
Major meat producer Tyson Foods has also invested in Memphis Meats. It’s also an investor in Israeli clean meat startup Future Meat Technologies. Justin Whitmore, Executive Vice President, Corporate Strategy and Chief Sustainability Officer of Tyson Foods, spoke about the move at a panel event in 2018. “We don’t want to be disrupted,” he said. “We want to be part of the disruption.”