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  • Writer's pictureAlan Frischer, MD, MPH

Lab Meat

I find it absolutely fascinating that scientists are working on creating meat in the laboratory. The concept has enormous potential - to reduce environmental costs, to contribute to a more healthful diet, to protect animal welfare, and even to ease world hunger. Population growth and changing diets have led to a doubling of meat consumption over the past 50 years. Producing meat is costly - to us, and to our planet. Meat and dairy products account for 70% of global water consumption, 38% of land use, and perhaps 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, food-producing animals may be fed antibiotics and growth-promoting hormones, which, of course, we then consume. Their impact on our health is still not fully understood. Imagine a backyard barbecue where the burgers and chicken were grown in your own kitchen, using a single stem cell from an animal’s muscle tissue. Chemically, it would be the same as the meat that comes from that animal, and it’s not genetically modified. We’re a long way from creating affordable meat, and from doing it outside of a lab; nonetheless, raising animals for consumption may become a thing of the past. Meat is essentially muscle tissue. Due to modern stem cell research and tissue engineering, scientists can already grow tissue in the lab. When it grows from a few cells into a chunk, it becomes a piece of meat, and is referred to as *lab grown*, *clean*, or *cultured* meat. There are a number of companies hard at work in this field. But can the cost of lab-grown meat match or beat that of currently available meat products?

  • The Dutch company Mosameat has grown such beef in the lab since 2012. Stem cells were extracted from cow muscle tissue. Over a few weeks, the cells multiplied and formed thin strips of muscle. It took about 10,000 of these strips to make one patty, which cost about $300,000! Since that first burger, the company has reduced the cost of this burger to $30 per pound.

  • Over the last two years, a Silicon-Valley startup, Memphis Meats, has produced meat, chicken, and duck from animal cells. Unsurprisingly, the costs ran into the thousands of dollars per pound.

  • Recently, the largest United States meat company, Tyson Foods, launched a venture-capital fund to invest in start-ups working on lab grown meats.

Whether lab grown or not, do we really want to consume more meat? The World Health Organization has published a report that classified red meats as “probably carcinogenic to humans” and processed meats as “carcinogenic to humans.” Scientists haven’t yet determined just which elements of conventional meat are responsible for the potential carcinogenic effects. There have, of course, long been meat alternatives readily available. Vegetarian and vegan meat substitutes made from plants are in our grocery aisles. Insect consumption is common in many areas of the world, and provides a great source of protein. Are you interested in trying lab-grown meat? Perhaps this will be our future. At this time, cultured meat is still in the research and development phase and has considerable cost, technological, and regulatory hurdles to overcome.

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