What was once the stuff of science fiction is finally moving closer to our dinner plates. We’re talking about lab-grown meat — foods like chicken nuggets or bluefin tuna grown from animal cells instead of killing an animal. There are now 156 companies working on the proteins now approved for sale as “cell-cultivated.”
In the past year, the Food and Drug Administration gave the green light to two companies, Upside Foods and Good Meat, both of which have now received USDA clearance to sell cultivated meat in the U.S.
Industry investments since 2016 now total $2.8 billion, plus the world’s Food and Agriculture Organization just completed a food safety assessment and found cultivated proteins are essentially the same as traditional meat, only with the capacity to do so much more — drastically reduce pollution and animal suffering. So how are cultivated proteins made?
What Is Lab-Grown Meat?
The term “lab-grown” has been widely criticized by the cultivated meat industry — after all, everything from cotton candy grapes to sesame seeds for hummus are tinkered with by food scientists in a lab. But what exactly is it?
How Is Lab-Grown Meat Different From Plant-Based Meat?
Unlike conventional meat, which is produced by raising and slaughtering farm animals — typically packed together on crowded industrial operations — lab-grown or cultivated meat is meat grown from cells. It’s different from plant-based meat, which contains no foods from animals, deriving its protein solely from plants, typically pea or soy protein.
How Is Lab-Grown Meat Made?
The process of making lab-grown meat begins with the extraction of cells from the muscle and skin tissue of a living animal. Local anesthesia may be used to eliminate the momentary discomfort the animal may experience.
Selection of Starter Cells
Scientists typically extract stem cells because they are capable of self-renewal and differentiation into further types of cells.
The part of the animal’s body from which the cells are taken depends on the type of meat being produced. From chickens, the cells can even be extracted from an egg or a feather.
Treatment of Growth Medium
Next, the stem cells are placed in bioreactors along with a selection of nutrients including amino acids and vitamins. Although the industry initially relied on fetal bovine serum as the growth medium for their cells, most companies including Mosa Meat, Eat Just, and GOOD Meat either have already or are working towards eliminating it from their processes.
In the nutrient-dense medium, the animal cells multiply and grow, becoming muscle tissue ready for the next step.
The cells need a structure to help them form into the intended shape — the “cuts” of meat being produced. This structure is called scaffolding.
Scaffolding can be made of natural biomaterials including gelatin, algae, cellulose or silk. Others may be synthetic, such as polyethylene glycol.
Is Lab-Grown Meat Actually Meat?
Yes, cultivated meat is grown from animal cells, and while it is not identical to the tissues of a living animal, it is made from the same materials and has nearly the same structure. For all intents and purposes, lab-grown meat is indeed actually meat.
Is Lab-Grown Meat As Nutritious As Regular Meat?
Lab-grown meat typically has the same nutritional components — like protein — which also means it can come with the same unhealthy aspects — such as high levels of saturated fat and cholesterol — as traditionally made meat.
Yet cultivated meat companies do have the potential to tinker with the product’s nutritional profile — making a lower fat steak for example. Lab-grown meat could also be a boon for public health in other ways too. By eliminating the need for factory-farmed animals in its production, cultivated meat skips the crowded and unhygienic agriculture operations that facilitate the spread of disease and, according to many experts, put us at risk of future pandemics.
What Does Lab-Grown Meat Taste Like?
Producers of cultivated meat are aiming to replicate the taste and texture of conventional meats, and because their products are in fact real animal-based meats, this goal should be achievable. Indeed, many of the initial taste tests have yielded positive reviews.
Some taste testers have been unable to taste a difference with traditional meat, or have even incorrectly guessed which sample was cell-based. Others say the texture is slightly different or dense, and Bon Appétit reports that it may be sweeter or more bitter than conventional meat and its flavor will likely “pack less of an umami punch.”
Do Animals Die for Lab-Grown Meat?
The cells needed to produce lab-grown meat are taken from living animals, with no need to slaughter the animal whose cells are extracted. In the early stages of research and development, serum taken from bovine fetuses was used as the medium that facilitated cell growth, but startups are eliminating serum from their products. This has the potential to make lab-grown meat a truly slaughter-free protein.
Can Vegans Eat Lab-Grown Meat?
Lab-grown meat is not technically considered vegan because it contains cells, fat and muscle tissue derived from real animals. Yet some vegans happily eat cultivated meat because it’s made without the mass animal slaughter of traditional meat. Still, the true power of cultivated meat lies in its potential to reach omnivores, consumers who do eat animal-based meat and are looking for a way to minimize the impact of what they eat.
Lab-Grown Meat Pros and Cons
Like almost anything else, cultivated meat has its positives and negatives — and like anything new to consumers and rooted in technology — it has sparked plenty of debate.
Why Do Some Critics Dislike Lab-Grown Meat?
Lab-grown protein is costly to scale and more funding — both government and private — is needed to create a viable industry.
Further, some believe that the energy needed to produce lab-grown meat at scale will keep it from being a truly environmentally sustainable option. So without massive expansion of renewable energy production, high energy costs will keep it from replacing conventional meat, even though the latter is environmentally unsustainable.
Still other critics argue that lab-grown meat is “unnatural,” based on the false notion that everything natural is better, healthier or more sustainable.
Why Do Advocates Praise Lab-Grown Meat?
The global demand for animal-based meat continues to rise, despite an ever-growing body of evidence that meat production causes animal suffering, drives environmental degradation and jeopardizes our health. Many experts agree that we need to make our food system more humane and sustainable, and cultivated meat could be part of the solution.
The Good Food Institute reports that cultivated meat, if produced using renewable energy, would have a carbon footprint 92 percent lower than beef and 44 percent lower than pork.
Of course, cell-based products also promise to vastly reduce animal suffering. The many startups producing lab-grown chicken, for example, have the potential to end the suffering of billions of animals who suffer hugely thanks to genetic manipulation and poor housing.
When Will Lab-Grown Meat Be Available to Buy?
In December 2020, Singapore became the first nation to approve a lab-grown meat product: Eat Just’s cultivated chicken, which then quickly made its restaurant debut. Other cell-based meat startups have since arrived in the country. In November 2022, Singapore’s government served products made by GOOD Meat, a division of Eat Just, to world leaders gathered for the COP27 climate conference.
While lab-grown meat has yet to hit the market in other countries, there are signs that U.S. consumers could soon get to try it.
Did the FDA Approve Lab-Grown Meat?
In a significant milestone in the regulatory approval process, the FDA has issued a “no questions” letter to two cultivated meat startups: UPSIDE Foods and GOOD Meat. These notices indicate that the federal agency dedicated to food safety and nutrition has no remaining concerns after reviewing their lab-grown products, deeming them “generally recognized as safe.”
When Will Lab-Grown Meat Hit the U.S. Market?
Although there are promising signs that cultivated meat will soon be available to consumers, significant challenges remain for what is still a nascent industry.
In the U.S., companies cleared by the FDA must still obtain approval from the USDA, and there are other issues to contend with. For example, UPSIDE Foods is currently able to produce 50,000 pounds of lab-grown meat annually in its facility worth $50 million — and needs “significant additional investment” to meet its goal of 400,000 pounds per year, reports ABC News. There are also questions about how easily production can be scaled up and, once lab-grown meat is available for purchase, whether consumers will be open to it, rather than viewing it as unnatural or unsafe.
Perhaps most important among these issues currently is the need for more funding.
How Much Will Lab-Grown Meat Cost?
The cost of lab-grown meat production is already falling, and reportedly it now takes $9.80 to produce one burger. While costs are likely to continue to fall as research and development concludes and production leaves the laboratory, it remains unclear whether the amount of technology and labor involved in the creation of cultivated meat will keep the price for consumers relatively high.
Research published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Research in August 2022 found that growth media, bioreactors and labor account for over 80 percent of current production costs. The study’s authors note that, even with scaled production in a large facility, cultivated meat could cost $63 per kilogram to produce. And this price, they state, will only be achieved if improved technology can lower the cost of creating hormones and make use of the growth medium more efficient.
Others have been more optimistic. In 2021, the Good Food Institute estimated that production costs could drop to $6.43 per kilogram ($2.92 per pound) by 2030, making entirely cultivated protein “cost-competitive with some conventional meats.” Blended products, those containing both cell-based and either plant- or animal-derived ingredients, would likely be the cheapest option, according to the report.
Will Lab-Grown Meat Replace Traditional Meat?
It remains unclear whether cultivated meat will have the capacity to entirely replace conventional meat. Some consumers might remain unwilling to try it, or to completely eschew traditional meat in favor of cell-based alternatives — even as production shifts from the laboratory to the factory.
That said, cultivated meat currently offers the closest alternative to protein made from animals raised inside factory farms. It has the potential to reach many consumers concerned with animal welfare and looking for ways to reduce the carbon footprint of their diets.
What Would Happen to Farmers and Their Animals if Cultivated Meat Takes Off?
At this time, there are no signs that cultivated meat will entirely replace conventional meat. Yet lab-grown protein could one day reduce the total number of animals farmed while still feeding the global demand for animal-based products. If cultivated meat and other alternative proteins succeed, farmers will still be needed to grow these proteins and the crops that become the feed to grow cells. Cultivated meat producers will also still need cells from living animals, which will come from smaller and less costly herds.
Are Other Cell-Based Products Being Made in Labs?
The cell-based industry is developing a wide range of products.
The EVERY Company (formerly called Clara Foods) announced in 2021 that it created the world’s first egg white made through precision fermentation, relying on microbes and DNA sequences.
Precision fermentation is growing in popularity for a variety of products due to its potential to become a more sustainable form of food production, as it does not require the use of animals.
While some populations of bluefin tuna have been recovering from the impacts of overfishing, the fish remain a highly sought-after species for human consumption. Some cultivated seafood startups are trying to ease the pressure on bluefin numbers by creating a lab-grown alternative.
California-based startups BlueNalu and Finless Foods are both producing cell-based versions of bluefin tuna. BlueNalu recently entered into a partnership to help the company scale up its production, and Finless Foods aims to “immediately compete” with conventional bluefin products once it arrives on the market, achieving price parity soon after.
The growing production of a variety of lab-grown meats has sparked questions as to how far the cultivated industry can go in replacing conventional proteins. Should the meat of wild species even be consumed by humans, even if in the form of cell-based alternatives? How about even those not typically seen as foods, such as bald eagles or tigers?
As society ponders these questions, some startups are already working to create the products. U.K.-based company Primeval Foods is developing the meat of wild animals including lions and zebras, reasoning that “we consume beef, chicken, fish, and pork not because they are the tastiest, healthiest, or most nutritious species; they are just the easiest to domesticate.”
As reported in The Washington Post, “lab-grown dairy has already arrived” — using precision fermentation. Proteins made by Perfect Day are used in Brave Robot’s cow-free ice cream and sold by Natreve in the form of its Mooless whey protein powder.
Lab-Grown Meat Companies
Globally, there are more than 150 companies located on 6 continents and working with a total of over $2.6 billion in funding to produce lab-grown meat. Some of the best-known names in the industry include Eat Just, Mosa Meat, and UPSIDE Foods.
What You Can Do
Cultivated proteins are one of many alternatives to meat produced from intensively farmed animals — eliminating animal suffering, climate pollution and the massive antibiotic use problem from the way we farm meat and milk.
News from this emerging industry is changing rapidly, and you can stay up to date with the latest by following stories from Sentient Media and other outlets covering the future of our food system.
This piece has been updated.
Jennifer is a writer and editor based near Washington, DC. Her background is in communications in the animal protection movement. She is also a contributing writer with Sentient Media.