The idea of eating a steak that wasn’t cut from the carcass of a cow might have once seemed a fantastical notion just a few years ago. But today, the cultured meat industry is turning fantasy into reality for the benefit of people and animals everywhere.
Known by many names, from “clean meat” and “cell-based meat” to “lab-grown” and “slaughter-free,” cultured meat could be the future of animal agriculture. Cultured meat brings the promise of real animal products without the slaughter or significant human and environmental costs associated with conventional meat production.
This article will explore what cultured meat is, how it is made, and the ways it can make the world a more healthy and sustainable place.
What Is Cultured Meat?
Cultured meat refers to the process of growing animal cells outside of an animal’s body to produce real animal products such as hamburgers, chicken nuggets, and fish fillets. Cultured meat begins by cultivating a small number of cells taken from a living animal, or “donor animal” in industry parlance. These cells are then proliferated outside of the animals’ body, where they are fed nutrients and hormones so that they grow and multiply, resulting in biomass which can then be harvested for human consumption.
In nearly every way, cultured meat is the same as conventional meat. The biggest difference is that cultured meat does not require the raising or killing of animals. This is why cultured meat is often called “slaughter-free meat” and is one of the many reasons these innovative products are considered more ethical and ultimately sustainable.
Is Cultured Meat Real Meat?
Cultured meat is real, genuine meat, made of cells such as muscle and fat, which appear exactly as they would if they were inside an animal’s body. The difference between conventional and cultured meat is the in vitro process by which cultured meat is grown. This process will be discussed below. Ultimately, a cultured meat hamburger will look and taste identical to a conventional one, since they are both made of animal cells.
How Is Cultured Meat Made?
When compared with conventional meat, which requires forcibly impregnating an animal to produce offspring for the explicit purpose of human consumption, the origins of cultured meat are relatively peaceful. It all begins with a small biopsy, which can be taken from a donor animal (which can be done painlessly with anesthetic). This cell culture is then grown and proliferated within an in vitro environment instead of an animals’ body. Below are some basic components of the process, from cell sample to steak.
First, the desired species is selected: cow for hamburgers, fish for fillets, as well as many other starter cells that are being explored. Generally, three types of starter cells can be used. Fully-formed, or mature, cells—such as muscle cells—can be coaxed into growing and multiplying themselves to produce the biomass necessary to create finished products. Within biopsies of full-grown animals, stem cells will also be present that are destined to produce more of whatever is in the sample—so, if the biopsy is muscle, these stem cells can be encouraged to produce more muscle cells. These stem cells tend to be able to reproduce more than other cell types.
Essentially, the growth medium is food for cells. Just like any animal, cells must consume calories to grow and multiply. Growth medium contains basic nutrients like amino acids and sugars, along with growth factors—often proteins—that act like conductors in an orchestra, directing cells to divide, turn into certain types of cells, or attach to scaffolding, as described below.
Scaffolds in cultured meat enable the creation of products beyond hamburgers and hot dogs, which lack internal structure and are instead masses of cells combined with certain binding agents. With scaffolding, beloved products where texture forms a critical component of the culinary experience become possible, such as marbled steak or a flaky fillet of fish.
In bodies, scaffolds are made of collagen structures to which cells adhere, creating the forms for muscles and other features. Companies are experimenting with 3D scaffolds made out of a wide array of materials, such as mushroom filaments or textured soy protein. In cultured meat, scaffolds can be designed to remain in the finished product, making their taste an important factor, or they may dissolve after sufficient numbers of cells have filled them out, enabling the cells to retain the structure on their own.
Cultured Meat Pros And Cons
Cultured meat creates safer working environments. Slaughterhouses, meatpacking facilities, and factory farms comprise the most dangerous jobs in the United States, due to the high use of dangerous chemicals, machinery designed to dismember bodies, and the injuries which arise out of dealing with living, panicking animals. Cultured meat facilities will not demand anywhere near the same degree of risk to personal safety.
Cultured meat is cleaner. Fecal contamination is common on conventionally raised meat, giving rise to serious health risks. Fecal contamination can occur as a result of animals being shipped to slaughterhouses in ships or trucks over long distances, a terrifying experience that causes them to defecate out of fear and stress. Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a “zero-tolerance” policy for fecal contamination, many argue that the agency—and meatpacking plants—are falling far short of this goal. A 2009 study found 87 percent of chicken carcasses tested positive for E. coli, whereas a 2012 survey found 48 percent feces contamination. Cultured meat eliminates the possibility of fecal contamination.
Cultured meat takes time. With the climate emergency dawning brighter each day, the world is in dire need of solutions to replace deleterious industries like industrial animal agriculture. Yet as with all new technologies, it takes time to develop, test, and scale production. Fortunately, many companies are racing towards these goals, and undeniable progress is being made.
Cultured meat requires consumer trust. Consumers can be disdainful or wary of change, causing problems when it comes to public trust in scientific and industrial innovations. Cultured meat has yet to establish trust and inspire confidence with consumers since products have yet to hit supermarket shelves. It remains to be seen whether clean meat is ultimately acceptable to the masses.
Differences From Conventional Meat
While cultured meat is real meat, there are some significant differences when compared with conventional meat. Below are a few of the biggest differences:
Perhaps contrary to conventional wisdom, meat can be unhealthy—particularly when it is consumed in the amounts that are typical of North American diets, which on average contain twice as much protein as is generally recommended. Eating too much meat and other animal products can lead to heightened levels of fat and blood cholesterol levels, which can pave the way towards cardiovascular disease and other deadly ailments.
Cultured meat has an advantage over regular meat since it is possible to control levels of fat and cholesterol, while also fortifying meat with vitamins and minerals—making these products potentially much healthier than slaughtered meat.
Cultured meat has been labeled as artificial or unnatural because it is grown in vitro, or outside of an animals’ body. However, the factory farms used to produce conventional meat are no less artificial or unnatural, since they keep animals indoors their entire lives, in spaces so small they often cannot even turn around.
The reality is that cultured meat is much like any other processed food. So much of North American diets rely on refined products. Few people today are bothered by Jell-O, which is manufactured by boiling the bones and connective tissues of animals; or chicken nuggets, which involves blending all manner of chicken parts into an edible sludge. Each of these products was developed in a laboratory setting, just as cultured meat is before they were moved into large-scale production facilities. Cultured meat will follow a similar path.
Ultimately, cultured meat is no more artificial than any other processed food product on the market today.
Animal agriculture is responsible for at least 37 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and it is incredibly land-, resource-, and water-intensive. Studies have found that cultured chicken would use up to 67 percent less land than conventional chicken, whereas cultured beef would decrease greenhouse gas emissions by up to 87 percent.
Role Of Genetic Modification
As of now, the role of genetic modification in the creation of cultured meat remains unclear and will ultimately depend on a company’s strategy and laboratory process. GMOs could be incorporated during cell line development, and starter cells could be taken from genetically-modified donor animals. Many companies are simply unable to give a final answer at this stage. However, one report stated it was “likely” that some companies would utilize genetic engineering in some way.
Industrial animal agriculture, from which virtually all of North America’s animal products originate, is not ethical in essentially any way. Farmed animals are forced to endure painful conditions at every stage of their shortened lives. Male calves can be torn from their mothers the moment they are born, only to be placed into solitary confinement until their imminent slaughter. Female pigs chosen to be breeders spend the majority of their lives confined so tightly they cannot even turn around. Broiler chickens are kept alive for roughly 47 days when their natural lifespans can exceed 12 years. Cultured meat does not rely on any one of these cruel and inhumane practices.
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Food and Drug Administration announced an intra-agency collaboration in overseeing the cultured meat industry. But because of the emergent nature of the industry, questions around regulation remain. For example, the point of cell harvest—when the FDA transfers oversight responsibilities to the USDA—has yet to be clearly defined within cultured meat production.
Labeling laws also remain a contentious issue, with conventional meat producers arguing that the definition of “meat” should explicitly exclude cultured meat, even though cultured meat is real meat, only grown differently. Restricting labeling in this way could lead to consumer confusion and even health concerns, since people with meat allergies may not be able to properly discern between meat and non-meat products.
Cultured meat presents religions with some interesting questions. In many cases, there does not appear to be a consensus in many regards, given that, in many places in the world, cultured meat products have yet to hit supermarket shelves.
However, certain opinions have already been given on the matter. Within certain sects of Hinduism, where the cow is considered a sacred animal, the consumption of beef in any form is strictly prohibited, making cultured beef off-limits. Within Islam, lab-grown meat could be considered halal providing that no blood was used during the culturing process. In the Jewish community, some perceive cultured meat as having gone through sufficient transformation that it cannot be defined as forbidden for consumption.
According to a 2019 analysis, the global market for cultured meat is estimated to be worth 214 million in 2025 and reach up to nearly 600 million by 2032, with cultured poultry production expected to lead these trends. A major hurdle for the cultured meat industry to surpass is the cost of producing its products. However, costs have been coming down, especially in recent years. Mosa Meats forecasted that as early as 2021, its cultured hamburgers would cost around $10.
When it comes to consumer acceptance, a lot hinges on the story that’s told, and the way it’s told—including the terminology used. This is why the Good Food Institute has chosen to use “clean meat” since “cultured” can lead to the visions of laboratories and Petri dishes when the reality looks far different. As companies take production to scale, cultured meat factories will resemble a beer brewery, not a laboratory.
Another reason for focusing on terms like “clean meat” is to draw comparisons to clean energy: both are far more sustainable in the long run and will help avert the environmental disasters the world is currently headed towards.
In most countries around the world, cultured meat products have yet to be approved by federal food and drug administrations. But in a global first, Singapore recently became the first to authorize the use of lab-grown meat as an ingredient in chicken nuggets. The cultured chicken comes from Eat Just, a longstanding plant- and cell-based meat producer based in San Francisco. The company, and others like it, will be seeking approval to sell cultured meat in the U.S. and other countries.
“This is a historic moment in the food system,” Eat Just’s chief executive, Josh Tetrick, told the New York Times. “We’ve been eating meat for thousands of years, and every time we’ve eaten meat we’ve had to kill an animal—until now.”
Artificial Meat Companies
The number of artificial meat companies worldwide has been growing rapidly as the promise of cultured meat markets becomes more understood and sought-after.
Companies like Mosa Meats, Aleph Farms, and Memphis Meats are among the promising start-ups pioneering exciting new forms of cultured meat. Established companies like Tyson and Cargill, two of the largest meat companies in the U.S., have invested in cultured meat start-ups as a way of diversifying their portfolios and offer a wider array of products to consumers in the future.
History Of Cultured Meat
People have been experimenting with cultured meat for decades. Around the year 2000, a project funded by NASA produced goldfish filets as a source of meat during far-flung missions in space. At around that same time, Harvard Medical School produced steaks from sheep cells. One of the most famous landmarks came in 2013 when Mosa Meats produced the world’s first cultured meat hamburger. It cost a whopping $300,000.
Though the cultured meat industry is still in its infancy, it has the potential to resolve many of the dire social and environmental costs associated with conventional meat production. Once consumers accept these innovations as being safe and delicious, a healthier, more just world may be within reach.
Sentient Media editorial team.