As the world continues to move towards a greener and more ethical future, the meat industry may be gradually transitioning to cruelty-free and sustainable practices. Lab-grown or cultured meat could be a major factor in accelerating this shift, as it provides a viable solution for vegans and omnivores.
What is lab-grown meat or "cultured" meat?
Cultured meat is meat grown from animal cells in a controlled environment rather than obtained through traditional animal agriculture. Cultured meat is designed to replicate traditional meat at a cellular level. The process begins by obtaining a small sample of animal cells, such as muscle cells, from a living animal. These cells are then cultured in a bioreactor where they receive nutrients, grow, and multiply, eventually forming muscle tissue that closely resembles conventional meat.
Why are we talking about this?
In a landmark decision, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has given the green light to sell lab-grown or cultured meat. Two American manufacturers, GOOD Meat and UPSIDE Foods, have received approval from the USDA. These companies grow small chicken cells into slabs of meat without slaughter.
UPSIDE Foods and GOOD Meat received their final approvals from the USDA in June 2023. The approval process involved rigorous safety testing to ensure the cultivated meat is safe for consumption.
The FDA regulates cultured meat jointly with the USDA-FSIS (United States Department of Agriculture - Food Safety and Inspection Service). The joint regulation ensures that lab-grown meat products meet the same safety standards as conventionally produced meat.
In 2020, Singapore became the first country in the world to approve lab-grown meat for human consumption. This was a significant milestone in the global food industry, opening the door for other countries to follow suit.
What This Means for Consumers
For the first time, consumers will have the option to purchase meat that has been grown in a lab from animal cells. This could lead to a reduction in the demand for conventionally farmed meat and, subsequently, a decrease in the environmental impact associated with livestock farming.
However, the widespread availability of cultured meat is still a work in progress. Although it's legally allowed, several challenges must be overcome before cultured meat becomes common in grocery stores and restaurants. These include scaling up production, reducing costs, and gaining consumer acceptance.
Potential benefits of cultured meat
Cultured meat could dramatically improve animal welfare by eliminating the need to raise and slaughter animals for food. This is a significant advantage, particularly considering concerns about current legal factory farming practices.
Cultured meat uses far fewer resources compared to traditional livestock farming. It requires approximately 70% less global arable land currently used for growing livestock feed. Additionally, it reduces greenhouse gas emissions and water use, making it a more environmentally friendly option.
Lab-grown meat has the potential to be healthier than conventionally produced meat. Since it's produced in a controlled environment, it's much less likely to be contaminated. Furthermore, its nutritional profile can be modified during production to contain more protein and polyunsaturated fatty acids which the body needs for brain function and cell growth, making it a potentially healthier choice.
Cultured meat could also help address the issue of food security. As the global population grows, lab-grown meat offers a sustainable solution to meet the increasing demand.
Hurdles for lab-grown meat
High Production Cost
At present, lab-grown protein is costly to scale. More funding, both government and private, is needed to create a viable industry. As with most new processes, production costs should decrease as economies of scale take hold, reducing costs to consumers over time.
Labeling and Regulation Issues
With this new technology comes the question of how it should be labeled and regulated. This is a complex issue that involves both food safety considerations and consumer rights.
Potential Impact on Farmers
A common argument against the transition to cultured meat is that it could be economically detrimental to farmers and brands currently involved in traditional livestock farming.
Of all the hurdles, this may be the biggest. Overcoming the "ick factor" will be a major challenge for the cultured meat industry.
More on the "ick" factor of cultured meat
The "ick factor" is the initial disgust or hesitation many feel when thinking about eating meat grown in a lab. This concept has been discussed and debated as the technology behind cultured meat advances.
Despite the scientific marvel of this process, some consumers find the idea of lab-grown meat off-putting or unnatural. A little ironic seeing that what happens to animals in animal agriculture is both off-putting and nowhere near the "natural" realm.
Understanding and talking about why some people might experience the "ick" factor may be helpful as a reflective exercise to help understand why there may be hesitation.
- Psychological Association: For many people, meat has always been associated with slaughtering animals. The idea of consuming meat that doesn't come from a living, breathing animal can be difficult to grasp initially, as it challenges deeply ingrained cultural and psychological associations.
- Unfamiliarity: Cultured meat is a relatively new concept for most people, and novelty can often trigger a cautious or negative response. People tend to be more comfortable with what they know and have been accustomed to throughout their lives.
- Perception of Artificiality: The term "lab-grown" or "cultured" can conjure up images of synthetic products, leading to concerns about the safety or health implications of consuming such meat.
- Fear of the Unknown: Producing cultured meat involves using cell cultures in a controlled environment, which can be unfamiliar and intimidating to those unfamiliar with biotechnology or tissue engineering.
- Connection to Nature and Tradition: Eating meat has been a part of human history and culture for millennia, often linked to traditional farming and hunting practices. Moving away from these age-old practices may feel like a disconnection from nature and cultural heritage for some individuals.
Moving beyond the "ick" factor
As with any emerging technology, education, awareness, and open discussions will play a crucial role in shaping public perceptions and acceptance of cultured meat as a viable and sustainable option for the future of food.
Over time, as people become more familiar with cultured meat and its potential benefits, the "ick" factor may gradually diminish.
Cultured meat represents an exciting glimpse into the future of sustainable and ethical food production. While it may take time for consumers to fully embrace this new food, its potential benefits for the environment, animal welfare, and global food security are immense. As technology progresses and regulations ensure its safety, cultured meat could become a prominent feature on our plates, offering a delicious and conscientious way to satisfy our appetites for meat.
- Human Food Made with Cultured Animal Cells
- FDA Says Lab-Grown Meat Is Safe to Eat—But What Is It, Exactly?
- USDA approves 1st ever 'cell-cultivated meat' for 2 American manufacturers
- Lab-Grown Meat Receives Clearance From F.D.A.
- FDA gives 2nd safety nod to cultivated meat, produced without slaughtering animals
- Is lab-grown meat really better for the environment?