Out of the lab and into your frying pan: the advance of cultured meat

Zoë Corbyn

I am sitting at a kitchen worktop in the airy offices of San Francisco food startup Eat JUST. As a vegetarian, I’m in angst about what is being gently turned over for me in the fryer by one of the chefs. Sitting beside me, the company’s CEO Josh Tetrick tries to put my moral dilemma into perspective. “You’re not my target market,” he says. “It’s people who are eating meat for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

The product in the fryer is JUST’s prototype chicken nugget, which costs about $50 to make. It is manufactured from what the industry calls cultured, cell-based or cultivated meat (though the outside world knows it more commonly as lab-grown meat). Not to be confused with “meat” that is plant derived, it is produced directly from animal cells with little need to raise and no need to slaughter actual animals. It is a technology with the potential to fundamentally change the world – significantly replacing the way meat is produced now with a kinder and less environmentally damaging alternative.

Cultured meat is a “colossal” market opportunity says Bruce Friedrich, co-founder and executive director of the Good Food Institute (GFI), a nonprofit organisation that promotes cultured meat and plant-based meat. Even a tiny bite of the $1.4tn annual global meat market would be a lot.

No cultured meat products are on the market yet and nor has it been approved in any country – but they are expected to begin trickling into high-end restaurants over the next couple of years. A plethora of companies are at various stages of scaling up production and several have done public and private tasting of various prototypes. They are working on everything from chicken to beef to fish and have both humans and pets in their sights.

The GFI estimates that since San Francisco Bay Area-based Memphis Meats – the first startup – was founded in 2015, a total of 60 enterprises now make up the market with cultured meat as their sole business focus; collectively they have raised nearly $140m in disclosed funding. That comes mostly from venture capitalists but also from agriculture multinationals such as Tyson and Cargill.

Should cultured meat be allowed to be called meat at all if it hasn’t been harvested from a whole animal?

JUST, which isn’t included in the GFI’s figures because it also makes vegan egg and mayonnaise, announced it was pursuing cultured meat in mid-2017, though it does not disclose what proportion of the $220m-plus it has raised in funding it is directing to its cultured meat endeavours. Meanwhile regulators are working on the approvals process and labelling requirements. Tetrick says JUST is ready to release its chicken nuggets in some high-end restaurants in an Asian country as soon as it has the thumbs up from the country’s regulator, with whom it is in dialogue. Chicken is considered easier in part because the vaccine industry has been using avian stem cells to produce vaccines for years: there is existing knowledge to draw on.

Establishing this industry isn’t easy, however. While companies work out technicalities, voices raising concerns about the technology and its implications are coalescing. It is also clear there is no agreed position on whether the material itself even counts as meat. “Cultured meat is in a process of becoming,” sums up Neil Stephens, a sociologist at Brunel University, London, who has been studying the area for over a decade and co-founded the group Cultivate to help build discussion of the technology. “It might become a stable category as meat, but it’s not there yet.”

Background

To a certain extent, the science of culturing meat is relatively well understood. The process begins when a cell is taken from an animal and grown up in a lab to permanently establish a culture (called a cell line). The cells can come from a range of sources: biopsies of living animals, pieces of fresh meat, cell banks and even the roots of feathers, which JUST has been experimenting with. Cell lines can either be based on primary cells – for example muscle or fat cells – or on stem cells. Stem cells have the advantage that with different nutrients, or genetic modifications, they are able to mature into any cell type. There is also no limit to how long stem-cell lines can live, so it is possible to use them indefinitely to produce a product. Once a good cell line – for example, one that grows fast and is tasty – has been selected, a sample is introduced into a bioreactor, a vat of culture medium where the cells proliferate exponentially and can be harvested. The resulting meat cell mush can be formed into a plethora of unstructured items, from patties to sausages – with or without other ingredients added for texture. Conventional meat has a variety of cell types from which it derives its flavour, including both muscle and fat, and the companies are trying to broadly replicate that.

JUST isn’t specifying how the cell source for the particular nugget I am about to try was obtained – it gets its cells in many ways – but I am assured the process didn’t involve any slaughter, which is why I think I am on safe ground eating it. For most people, notes Tetrick, it won’t matter how the cell is obtained. It is also not disclosing whether it was grown from a primary cell or a stem-cell line (which it doesn’t genetically modify). And I don’t know the exact type of chicken cells in the final product.

When I do bite into the nugget – which I am told is about 70% chicken, on a par with a premium chicken nugget – it has a dense texture and a mild, somewhat creamy flavour that reminds me of a pressed chicken sandwich I once bit into by accident. It also contains an amount of JUST’s own mung bean protein isolate for texture along with water, oil, salt, pepper and, this being a nugget, breading.

Yet while establishing cell lines is one thing, scaling them up for mass production at a competitive price is another. The problem is that the culture medium – needed for the cells to grow – is expensive and animal cells can take time to proliferate. And there is no guarantee that a small operation will work at large scale.

Compounding the challenge is the need to develop good alternatives to foetal bovine serum (FBS). Derived from the blood of cow foetuses, it is often added to culture media where the growth factors it contains work their magic. But its use is a nonstarter for an industry trying to take animals out of the equation and many companies are hard at work producing their own alternatives. “All of the companies have pledged that they will not sell products that involve FBS in the production,” notes Friedrich.

A further aspiration of the companies is moving beyond mush. Technologies such as 3D printing and edible scaffolds may enable this and there have been early demos. But producing, say, a fillet is much more difficult than ground meat.

There is also the challenge of getting consumers over the “yuck” factor. Stephens notes that the people prepared to try it tend to be educated, male and young – and that it is they who could help normalise it. Tetrick thinks the answer will ultimately come down to making products that are tasty and affordable – and, in the early days at least, educating people about the process and the benefits, which he notes would also extend to safer products because faecal contamination would be eliminated, as would antibiotics (sterile conditions would stop bacteria and viruses taking hold, and if they did, any contaminated batches could be discarded).

Resistance

For a technology with such far-reaching implications for everything from rural livelihoods to human identity, critical public discussion and debate to date have been relatively limited. But that may be changing.

The website Clean Meat Hoax was launched last year by an informal group of 16 animal rights scholars and activists. It rails against cultured meat on the grounds that it still suggests that meat is desirable, and that animals are a resource people can draw on. It contrasts with the more pragmatic position other animal rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) have taken in favour of the technology on the grounds that animals’ lives will be saved. “What is incredible to me is how uncritically this technology is being celebrated and I don’t think that’s an accident – we don’t want to consider the possibility that we can stop eating animals,” says site founder John Sanbonmatsu, a philosopher at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.

Meanwhile an advertisement in Brussels metro stations designed to undermine cultured meat contrasts a barn of cows surrounded by greenery to a “meat lab” surrounded by transmission towers. It is the work of the European Livestock Voice campaign – set up last year by a number of European farming industry groups to stress the potential social impacts of upending the meat industry.

Other voices, meanwhile, don’t reject the technology wholesale but have concerns over certain aspects.

What to make of all the company founders who would be vegan if they didn’t eat their own produce?

Michael Hansen is a senior scientist in the advocacy division of the nonprofit organisation Consumer Reports, which compares consumer products. He worries about the potential for bioreactor contamination but also wants more transparency from the companies on their science. How, for example, are they dealing with cells that spontaneously mutate? And what are the implications of the fact that immortal cell lines could, with their uncontrolled growth, be defined as cancer cell lines? He would also like to see data on how end products compare compositionally and nutritionally with the conventional versions. “You would think they would put samples out for somebody to test… but all we have are assertions,” he says.

The environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth (FoE), meanwhile, is “keeping an open mind” but stresses that the technology must not distract from existing, proven solutions to helping the planet, such as reducing reliance on animal feed produced on cleared ecoregions, cutting down food waste and supporting healthier diets. It also notes that it is “extremely energy intensive” to produce cultured meat and that the sustainability claims made by the companies will also need “proper assessment”. (JUST’s facilities are currently powered by electricity from the grid, but it plans to be more energy efficient in the future).

Labelling

Perhaps more significantly for the companies, there remains the question of whether cultivated meat should be allowed to be called meat at all if it hasn’t been harvested from a whole animal. The United States announced last year that cell-cultured livestock and poultry products would be regulated jointly by the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture but further detailed requirements along with labelling rules are awaited.

So far, the industry has done a good job of arguing that its products are meat. While debate continues within the cultured meat industry about exactly what adjective to put in front (“clean meat” was dropped because funders in the conventional meat industry didn’t like the “dirty” connotation it gave conventional meat), the “meat” is a constant – which asserts its claim to be either a subcategory of meat or just meat. “I actually think the word ‘meat’ does more work [than any of the adjectives],” says Stephens. And if Tetrick has his way, using any sort of prefix won’t be necessary for long. Phones were only called Smartphones at the beginning, he points out. “As something normalises you drop it. At the end of the day this thing is going to be called meat.”

A food engineer inspects vacuum-sealed cultured steak at Redefine Meat Ltd, Ness Ziona, Israel. Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images

But others don’t want it to be called meat at all.

Steered by the so called “barnyard lobby”, which represents the meat, livestock and poultry industries, over 30 US states have considered or are considering so-called “truth in labelling” laws aimed at preventing words such as “meat”, “beef” or “pork” being used to describe cultured meat (the laws often also target plant-based products). So far, laws have been passed in 12 states. Under Louisiana’s new law, which takes effect later this year, “meat” would specifically exclude anything that was a “cell-cultured food product grown in a laboratory from animal cells”. While state laws will be superseded when federal labelling rules for cultured meat come in, it doubtless sends a strong message to regulators as they decide.

Yet, notes Friedrich, whose GFI is challenging various pieces of state legislation in court, the outcomes could be “really bizarre” if cultivated meat cannot be called meat. “Some people have meat allergies… It’s a consumer safety issue,” he says.

If meat were to removed from the name, it would be a blow to an industry that believes that being recognised as meat is the most likely way to change the world. Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that last year cultured meat companies came together to form their own lobby group.

Meanwhile, what’s a vegetarian to do where cultured meat is concerned? And what to make of the many company founders, including Tetrick, who would be vegan if they didn’t eat their own products? For the UK Vegetarian Society, there isn’t enough information yet to decide whether cultured meat can be considered vegetarian. “There are still questions to answer,” it says, adding that those questions centre on production, ingredients, provenance and ethics. In contrast, for the UK Vegan Society, it is definitively not a vegan product because “the initial cells are taken from animals”. “We may need a new word for people who eat exclusively cultivated meat,” says Friedrich.

Certainly, from what meat is to what it is to be vegetarian or vegan, cultured meat is blowing apart our existing categorisations. Meat cell product, anyone?

Pet foods ’r’ us…

Pets account for a high proportion of our meat consumption. Photograph: Arco Images GmbH/Alamy

Cats and dogs consume more than 25% of the US meat supply. Pet food company Because Animals wants to see those diets replaced with meat grown in the lab. “Pet food has a huge environmental footprint,” says Shannon Falconer, co-founder and CEO. The company plans to launch a mouse meat cat treat made of 10% mouse cells as its first cultured meat product. It demonstrated a prototype last year. Culturing rabbit meat for dog food is next. It is a more natural diet for them that is more compatible with their digestion, says Falconer.

Wild Earth, a San Francisco Bay Area-based startup, also set out culturing mouse meat for cats but changed course after its market research showed many pet owners were alarmed by the prospect and didn’t understand the concept. “They thought we were killing mice and putting them into cans,” says Ryan Bethencourt, co-founder and CEO. (Jokingly, Bethencourt codenamed the would-be product “Jerry”, inspired by Tom and Jerry cartoons.) It is now working on growing chicken and fish for dogs and cats instead. The vision is for a premium raw product in the first instance, appealing to those who feed conventional raw meat to their animals.

Bethencourt wonders whether pet food might be a “gateway” for cultured meat. People have shown greater willingness to be innovative with pet food, he says, citing the popularity of cricket treats for dogs. Pet food isn’t so steeped in taste and tradition. The biggest market driver is expected to be pet owners wanting to avoid contaminants such as euthanasia drugs, which can get into pet food in the animal flesh that goes into the ingredients.

But cultured meat is not likely to be approved for pet food ahead of human food – pet food regulators take their cues from human-food regulators. Meanwhile the industry has some advantages. Creating texture or perfecting taste is less important. And people are used to pet food being a blend of different ingredients. Percentages of cultured meat also don’t have to be as high. “Financially it’s going to be more feasible to be a pet food company,” says Falconer.