If chicken or beef is grown in a laboratory, is it still considered meat? A food startup in San Francisco called Just has created the first slaughter-free chicken nugget, grown from cells of a chicken feather. The chicken that it came from is still alive and free, and taste testers from the BBC and Fast Company agree that it tastes like chicken. The ability to grow meat without livestock could be revolutionary, but it is a new concept that is still being defined.
What’s in a Name?
Cell-cultured meat is also referred to as lab-grown meat, clean meat, in vitro meat, imitation meat, synthetic meat and artificial meat. Science reported that the definition of meat was discussed at an FDA meeting in July 2018 to discuss safety and regulation. Some groups, such as the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, said the term “meat” is being misused.
“Meat scientists do not have enough information about cultured tissue to determine whether it should be called meat, or how it should be regulated,” said Rhonda Miller, a meat scientist at Texas A&M University in College Station, speaking on behalf of the American Meat Science Association. According to Science, she also raised several questions: “Does cultured meat spoil at the same rate as conventional meat? Does it allow the same growth of potentially harmful microbes? Is its shelf life the same? Does it have the same nutritional qualities?”
This argument isn’t just about semantics — the way we define meat will help determine regulation and how soon this new food can be sold to consumers. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates most food, but the Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees the farming industry, which includes meat products. In November 2018, the USDA and FDA announced that the two agencies would jointly oversee the production of cell-cultured meat products. In the new plan, the FDA will oversee “cell collection, cell banks, and cell growth and differentiation,” and then the USDA will “oversee the production and labeling of food products derived from the cells of livestock and poultry.”
How and Why Companies Are Growing Meat in Labs
Proponents say that lab-grown meat will help stop the slaughter of animals and protect the environment; industrial farming contributes to greenhouse gas emissions such as methane through agricultural waste and nitrous oxide via fertilizer use, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). However, just like many emerging technologies, it isn’t ready for mass consumption yet.
According to the BBC, Just can grow a chicken nugget in a bioreactor in only two days, but this accomplishment is the result of years of research and development. The lab-grown meat is not yet commercially available, but Just CEO Josh Tetrick told the BBC it would be on the menu at restaurants soon.
Fast Company explained that the basic techniques for growing meat have actually been used in medical research for decades, such as in tissue engineering of organs for drug discovery. At Just, scientists isolate cells that have been harvested from an animal (such as a chicken feather). The best cells are placed in flasks with a liquid medium that feeds them and a machine shakes them to encourage growth.
Other people are doing similar work. In 2013, a Dutch scientist created a lab-grown hamburger, which unfortunately cost $300,000, according to the BBC. Now, Just and a handful of other companies — Future Meat Technologies, Impossible Foods (creator of “The Impossible Burger”) and Beyond Meat, to name a few — are seeking to lower the cost of cultured meat by, for example, searching for cheaper ingredients to feed the meat cells. Impossible Burgers are sold in some grocery stores and usually retail for between $8.99 and $9.99 for a 12 ounce pack.
At Just, a large robot and data scientists collect data from all of the machines in the lab to identify the best ingredients. Meanwhile, researchers continue to grow meat inside a bioreactor that produces a cell paste. Vitor Santo, a senior scientist in cellular agriculture at Just, told Fast Company, “This is what we then deliver to our team of chefs to tell us if the cells are a good candidate or not for the final product.”
Unexpected Advocates for Cell-Cultured Meat
UN Environment awarded the Champions of the Earth Award to cultured meat companies Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat in September 2018 for their contributions toward sustainable development goals. The organization reports that a University of Michigan research study found that a Beyond Burger required 99 percent less water and 93 percent less land to produce than a conventional beef hamburger. Producing the burger generated 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions and used 46 percent less energy than its beef equivalent.
The BBC reported that not only have technology billionaires Bill Gates and Richard Branson invested in lab-grown meat, but even the biggest meat processor in the United States, Tyson Foods, is shifting from being a meat company to a protein company.