As my colleague Magdalene Taylor recently highlighted, the world is going through a faux meat revolution, and there are now more veggie options than ever before, including some that even devoted carnivores can appreciate. Perhaps the most curious (and innovative) of these options is what many are calling lab-grown meat, the likes of which are virtually identical to real meat, without the whole slaughtering a living animal part.
But while there’s been loads of thrilling news in recent years about how “this company managed to cultivate an imitation meatball” and “that company cloned a chicken nugget,” regulations, pricing and other hurdles have kept the actual products from making it onto the shelves.
In other words, while clean meat could improve upon many problems brought about by the current food production system — although, the reality is admittedly complex — it remains a faraway dream until someone can manage to produce it on a viable scale. So with Thanksgiving just a couple days away, I spoke with several clean-meat industry insiders to discuss how these products are coming along (and most importantly, when we can devour some dank lab-grown turkey).
What exactly is lab-grown meat, anyway?
“One quick note: ‘Lab-grown’ is a misleading term when applied to cultivated meat,” says Matt Ball of the Good Food Institute, which focuses on making clean meat and plant-based alternatives to animal products a reality. “Lab-grown is a term favored by some incumbents to try to make cultivated meat seem ‘scary.’ But all processed food begins in a food lab, yet of course, we don’t say ‘lab-created Cheerios’ or ‘lab-brewed beer.’ At scale, cultivated meat will be produced in a clean facility similar to a brewery, not a lab.”
Okay then! Cultivated meat. But what is it?
“Cultured meat — or ‘clean’ meat — is the same as conventional meat, but rather than slaughtering a whole animal, we produce the meat directly from animal cells,” explains Beckie Calder-Flynn of Mosa Meat, the clean meat company behind the first ever clean meat hamburger. “Cultured meat isn’t a plant-based substitute. Rather, it’s real meat that, under a microscope, is indistinguishable from meat tissue that comes from a cow, pig or chicken. We don’t do any genetic modification and don’t require antibiotics, as we produce our meat in sterile conditions (unlike contemporary meat production). As the cells are simply doing what they would do inside the animal, there’s no need to modify them in any way. Furthermore, genetically modified foods are banned in much of Europe, where Mosa Meat is based.”
So will clean meat be safer than the real thing?
“From a consumer perspective, the main difference [between clean meat and real meat] is that there will be no fecal contamination,” Ball explains. “Right now, contaminated animal products kill thousands of people every year, making many more very sick. This problem is almost universal. In their last test, Consumer Reports found bacterial contamination on 97 percent of chicken. We’re told to handle raw chicken as though it’s toxic waste, because in a way, it is.”
What about taste and nutrition? Will that be the same?
“Firstly, it tastes like meat,” says Calder-Flynn. “As cultured meat is molecularly the same as livestock meat, it tastes the same.” Interestingly enough, though, while Mosa Meat avoids engaging in genetic modifications, Ball says that certain alterations can be made. “It’s possible to tweak cultivated meat to shift its flavor and/or nutritional profile,” he explains. “For example, cultivated beef could have omega-3 fatty acids.” For context, normal beef is relatively low in omega-3 fatty acids, which are incredibly healthy fats, so being able to add them in would substantially increase its nutritional value.
Putting these modifications into practice, though, is a long, long way away. “We’re currently focused on producing meat that’s identical to the livestock product — albeit produced in a cleaner, safer environment,” Calder-Flynn emphasizes. “However, we believe that, if there’s a public demand for it, it will probably be possible to make cultured meat healthier than livestock meat in future, without using any genetic modification. The most obvious improvement would be to reduce the amount of fat tissue that we add. In addition, we’re probably able to induce the fat cells to make more polyunsaturated fatty acids — also known as omega-3 fatty acids — simply by adjusting their feed, just as cows that graze on grass have a lower saturated fatty acid content in their meat than cows from feedlots. This would have a beneficial effect on our cholesterol level, thereby reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.”
When can I have some of this cultivated meat?
“It’s possible that some restaurant somewhere in the world will have cultivated meat for sale sometime in the next year or so,” Ball says. “However, it will be years before the average person will be able to purchase cultivated meat. As an example, Impossible Foods was founded in 2011 and had a commercial burger not too long after that. They were producing a plant-based burger, something that had been done and done at scale (although not in quite the same way) for decades. But still, you can’t buy anything from Impossible at any grocery store here in Arizona today.” While you can now buy Impossible patties in some states, others are still awaiting regulatory approval, a hurdle that the clean meat business will surely face, to an even more rigorous degree.
Per Calder-Flynn, the wait for Mosa Meat in particular might be a while longer. “We’re aiming for a small-scale market introduction in three to four years,” she says. “Like other new technologies, it will be relatively expensive in the beginning and available at venues such as gourmet restaurants. But in the next decade, we project it will drop in price, so that there will be products on supermarket shelves that are competitive with livestock meat products.”
And what will that cost?
“The first burger cost €250,000 [$275,315] to produce,” Calder-Flynn admits. “It was funded by Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, who shares our concerns about the environmental and animal welfare impacts of conventional meat production. The burger was this expensive in 2013 because, back then, it was novel science, and we were producing at a very small scale. Once the production is scaled up, we project the cost of producing a hamburger will be around €9 [$9.70]. The cost of a hamburger in the supermarket is around €1 [$1.08], and we expect that with further efficiency improvements, we’ll be able to bring the price down to this level over the next decade. Ultimately, cultured meat should be cheaper than conventional meat, given its production is more efficient.”
Will we ever see a full Thanksgiving turkey roll out of a lab?
“Structurally, we’re currently only producing ground meat products and not steaks or other meat ‘cuts’ that consumers might be familiar with,” Calder-Flynn explains. “Ground beef accounts for 50 percent of the total meat market. Producing a larger and more complex 3D tissue structure, such as a steak, presents a larger scientific challenge, but is something we’ll be looking into in the future.”
A whole turkey, then, seems like it would be quite the task for clean-meat scientists. But if you’ve got a spare quarter mil handy, maybe they can whip one up for you in about 20 years.