Everything you wanted to know about lab-grown meat but were afraid to ask.
Last week, the US company Eat Just announced they passed safety review by the Singapore Food Agency and are approved start selling their chicken bites. This represents the first regulatory approval for a lab-grown (or cultured) meat. Many people – and significantly, investors – are betting that this is the future of meat.
How is this done?
Basically, cells are taken from an animal and put into a bioreactor. (a bioreactor is a generic name for devices or systems that create environments for biological activity.). There, in a medium which promotes growth, the cells multiply and the cells grow until they’ve produced meat. Expense comes from acquiring the cell lines, the mention techniques necessary to create texture and the media for growth.
Is Eat Just the only company trying to do this?
Nope. The Good Food Institute counted 26 companies involved in trying to create lab-grown meat. Among these are Memphis Meats, Mission Barns, Finless Foods, Rehovot and New Age Meats. There are companies like Blue Nalu that are planning on introducing cell-based seafood.
While the healthiness of meat in diets is a matter of oscillating debate, most dietary advice comes down on the side of limiting consumption of meats. Humane concerns over the conditions in which animals are kept focus on examples of cruelty and abuse and this is aside from the ethical considerations of slaughtering animals for food in general. Inhumane conditions are common at CAFO (Centralized Animal Feeding Operations) which also contribute to local environmental degradation. Raising and processing meats are environmentally intensive, using significant amounts of energy and water. And livestock is a largest single source of methane in the atmosphere, a greenhouse gas that warms at 28 times the rate of carbon. Meat consumption is projected to grow 70% by 2050. Cutting meat consumption is said to the best thing an individual can do to reduce their contribution to global warming.
Wow. Animals sure produce a lot of greenhouse gasses:
Fun fact: By weight, 60% of the mammals on earth are livestock, 36% are humans and only 4% are wild.
So cultured meat would fix this?
A preliminary study estimates lab-grown meat will emit 78-96% less greenhouse gas emissions, use 99% less land, and 82-96% less water.
Does it involve harming any animals?
The process involves harvesting cells, which can be done without harming the animal. The growth medium contains serum from fetal cells of the animal. Eat Just hopes to switch to a plant-based medium.
Don’t the products from Beyond Meat and Impossible already answer these needs?
There has been a lot of growth, excitement and investment in meatless meat. But it has its critics. The products are highly processed, with numerous and complicated ingredients. Many restaurant companies like Chipotle have made commitments to ‘clean’ foods – foods with simple and recognizable ingredients. The manufacturing processes are criticized as resource intensive. And dieticians are skeptical that these products are any healthier than meat.
Vegetarians and vegans should be happy about lab-grown meat, right?
You’d think. But there’s just no pleasing some people. Some think it is unacceptable to to even mimic meat.
How do meat eaters react to the product?
I haven’t tried them yet but here is a clip from Roy Moore Jr. of the Daily Show as he tries lab chicken nuggets.
I’m convinced. What is stopping lab-grown meats from taking over?
- Price. The first lab-grown burger cost over $300,000 in 2013. Just plans on selling the initial chicken product for more than $50 per lb. which is in Kobe/wagyu territory. Producers believe they can scale up, which will drive the price down.
- Mimicry. The target market for lab-grown meat products is mostly meat-eaters, not vegetarians. And getting the meat eater over the hurdles of both texture and taste will be difficult. When you eat a steak, for instance you are not only eating animal muscle but also animal fat, two different kinds of cells. And the muscle has to have the right fibers; one of the techniques has been to create scaffolds from collagen for allowing different types of cells to grow together. So far, they are getting closer on the taste side than on the texture.
- Consumer acceptance. This is largely unknown. A 2017 study in the US showed consumers generally agreed that lab-grown meat is ‘unnatural’, but they were willing to try it. A large study that found that Europeans were willing to try the product even if they wouldn’t commit to buying it and that 37% were willing to pay a premium for the lab-grown meat. 72% of Gen Z surveyed in Australia said they weren’t ready for it. The industry itself realizes it has to take steps to make the public comfortable with the concept of cultured meat.
If the flavor and texture of the product is close to the meat experience, it will find a place in the market. But it has to be really good and relatively cheap in order to save the world.