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  • Writer's pictureAlan Frischer, MD, MPH

Lab Grown Meat

Today’s topic may sound like science fiction. Can we include meat (real meat) in our diets without farms and ranches, without killing billions of animals every year, and without contributing (as much) to global warming?

“Cultivated meat” is grown in a laboratory from animal cells. Think of brewing beer, but instead of growing yeast or microbes, animal cells are grown. In this field of tissue engineering, a scientist might perform a biopsy (typically harmless) to harvest tiny pieces of stem cell tissue from an animal; or use cells from a cell bank (cell banks already exist for medication and vaccine development); or use a fertilized egg.

These animal stem cells are placed into a large, clean, and controlled stainless-steel tank. They are bathed in vitamins, sugars, salts, amino acids, and fatty acids. Stem cells multiply and differentiate into muscle, fat and connective tissue. They take perhaps two weeks to grow, and the resulting product can be shaped into a variety of forms. There is theoretically no limit to how much meat can be grown from a single cell. The resulting product has been referred to as cell-cultivated meat, cultured meat, cell-based meat, cell-grown meat, or lab-grown meat.

The first lab-grown meat was developed in 2013 by researchers in the Netherlands. Currently, there are some 150 companies working on products including beef, chicken, pork, lamb, and fish. In June, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the sale of lab-grown chicken made by both Upside Foods and by Good Meat. At this time, Singapore and the United States (Singapore came first) are the only countries to have approved cell-based meat for consumer consumption. It can now start to appear in restaurants and grocery stores.

What are some benefits of producing cultivated meat?

  • Clearly, there is no need to breed or kill animals.

  • Emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane are hugely reduced.

  • Land isn’t necessary for grazing, growing feed, or raising the animals, so clearing of land and forests is reduced.

  • There is far less chance for contamination and variability. Currently, many animals are given high doses of antibiotics, and this can lead to antibiotic resistance. Many are raised with synthetic growth hormones.

  • By adjusting nutrient profiles to achieve less saturated fat and cholesterol, or more vitamins and healthy fats, nutritional quality and impact on human health are improved.

The negatives?

  • Due to the current manufacturing process, it’s possible that cultivated meat may not provide significant savings in water or energy use, or reduced carbon dioxide emissions.

  • Presently, the process is very expensive, and cultivated meat costs much more than meat from conventional sources.

  • Studies are looking into long-term health effects, as well as the nutritional value.

  • Does it truly taste like the real thing? I haven’t tried it…yet…so I can’t contribute my opinion.

Is lab grown meat suitable for vegetarians or vegans? It is indeed still animal meat, regardless of how it is produced. There are many reasons people choose a vegetarian or vegan diet; if it is due to animal welfare reasons, then cultivated meat might be acceptable. Whether this will be considered Kosher is yet to be seen!

It’s difficult to predict future trends. It may be years before these products are commonly available, and decades before cell-based meat might replace a substantial portion of the traditional meat industry. A major hurdle will certainly be consumer acceptance. For now, studies show that people prefer plant-based options when considering alternative forms of protein. Of course, very few people have actually tried it.

Finally, this new product is, well, weird. I have, however, discussed in past columns that due to climate change, increasing population, etc., our Earth may not be able to support continued animal agriculture. Instead, insects may become a widespread protein source. Call me traditional, but this option sounds far better!

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