Lab-Grown Meat: What is Meat Made with Cultured Animal Cells?

Cell-cultured meat may soon be available in the United States as an alternative to conventional meat. Companies manufacturing cell-cultured meat say it’s an environmentally friendly, safer alternative to meat raised on farms. However, not much is known about the risks and benefits of this new food product.

Key takeaways:
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    Cell-cultured meat is grown in a laboratory, not on a farm like conventional meat.
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    Lab-grown meat has gained more attention after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced UPSIDE Foods, a company that makes these products, met the agency’s safety requirements.
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    Although cell-cultured meat is considered “real” because it’s grown from cells retrieved from an animal, little information exists about its risks and benefits.
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    Still, lab-grown meat companies plan to market their products as soon as they meet the required approvals from government food safety agencies.

What is cell-cultivated meat?

Cell-cultivated meat is made in a lab using animal cells. It’s created by taking a small sample of animal tissue and growing it in a nutrient-rich medium.

Mark Post, a Dutch pharmacologist, was the first to produce a cell-based beef hamburger in 2013. Since then, various companies have begun creating these cultured food products.

Dr. John Cumbers, former NASA bioengineer and founder and CEO of SynBioBeta, told Healthnews, “cell-cultured meats are made by taking a small cell sample from the animal you wish to cultivate and then growing those cells in an environment where they can be replicated to produce the meat.”

“There are various mechanisms that companies [use to] produce the cells. [For example], some of them are growing complex patterns and fiber formations,” he said.

“Another method is growing and collecting cells in a manner where the right shape of the meat is identical to conventional meat,” Dr. Cumbers explained. “Both methods are used today to grow animal-based, cell-based meats.”

According to Dr. Mohit Bhatia, co-founder of Atelier Meats, their method of creating cell-cultivated meat is a three-part process.

“First, we create a bovine (cow) tissue scaffold (or a frame) on which cells would attach. Second, we isolate and grow bovine stem cells in large amounts and then convert them into fat cells and muscle cells. Third, we expose the fat and muscle cells to the scaffold in a controlled manner. The cells can organize themselves into edible meat,” Dr. Bhatia explained.

“There is no real difference between traditional and cultured meat regarding handling, storage, and taste,” he told Healthnews.

Some of the types of meat that may enter the market include:

  • Chicken;
  • Fish;
  • Pork;
  • Seafood.

However, because cell-based meat production is relatively new, research is just beginning to investigate the safety and environmental claims surrounding this food production technology.

What are the possible benefits of cell-cultured meat?

Proponents of this technology, including the Good Food Institute (GFI), say the meat created in this manner is “real” because it comes from the cells of a live animal. GFI also claims by growing products in the lab — it’s possible to create high-quality cuts of meat using fewer resources resulting in less environmental impact.

For example, an analysis by Oxford University and the University of Amsterdam estimates that cultured meat would require up to 45% less energy to produce than conventional meat. However, the conventionally raised chicken still uses less energy to produce than cell-cultivated chicken.

GFI also suggests that cell-cultured meat carries a low risk of contamination by harmful pathogens and eliminates the need for antibiotics. This could reduce the serious public health threats posed by foodborne illness and antibiotic resistance.

In addition, if companies can produce cell-cultured meat efficiently, it could help offset food insecurity which impacts more than 2 billion people across the globe.

Are there safety concerns with lab-grown meat?

One hurdle cell-cultured meat companies face is consumer acceptance of their products — which may hinge on safety concerns.

“New food products go through an extremely strict set of safety, sanitation, and inspection tests and protocols both internally by the company producing it, as well as external parties required to ensure the meat is safe for human consumption,” Dr. Cumbers said.

“Cell-cultured meat is produced in highly controlled environments that can protect the meat from microbes and contamination including E. coli, Salmonella, and Campylobacter and other diseases such as zoonotic disease,” he explained.

Yet, one possible drawback to cell-cultured meat is the cells used to create it are initially retrieved from an animal. So, it might not be suitable for vegans or vegetarians. Also, it’s unclear if cell-cultured meat complies with Jewish or Islamic dietary rules.

In addition, some scientists hypothesize that with the high level of cell multiplication that occurs during cell-cultured meat production, some cell dysregulation is likely.

However, Dr. Cumbers suggests that safety concerns primarily revolve around knowing which companies conduct internal safety, sanitation, and inspection testing to ensure their cell-based meat is identical to meat from animals.

When will cultured meat be available?

Estimates indicate that by 2040, 35% of all meat consumed worldwide will be lab-grown.

Recently, the FDA announced that UPSIDE Foods, a company that makes cell-cultured meat, has met the agencies’ safety requirements.

A spokesperson from UPSIDE Foods told Healthnews that the company is working with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to obtain a grant of inspection for their Engineering, Production, and Innovation Center (EPIC) and to approve their label. Once those items are complete, the company can begin commercial production and sales.

Yet, it’s unclear how much cell-cultured meat will cost. For example, when Mark Post introduced the world’s first lab-grown hamburger in 2013, it had an estimated production cost of $375,000. However, the latest estimates suggest that when cell-cultivated meat products hit the market, a hamburger patty might cost around $10.

In contrast, October 2022 data indicates the average price of ground beef in the U.S. is approximately $4.84 per pound.

UPSIDE Foods said they will enter the market at what’s likely to be a price premium. Still, their goal is to be more affordable than conventionally produced meat.

The future of lab-grown meat

If the regulatory process for cell-cultured meat goes smoothly, it may soon arrive in restaurants and grocery stores worldwide. However, it is initially expected to carry a higher price tag than farm-raised meat until production methods become more streamlined.

The hope is that once that occurs, these products will be widely available to feed a growing global population. Still, whether they become a dietary staple likely depends on the public’s acceptance of lab-grown beef, chicken, or pork as an alternative to conventionally grown meat.

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