The shoe has dropped. After years of development and umpteen trials around the world, laboratory-grown meat is now approved for use in the United States. That’s right. We’ll soon be able to buy it and eat it right here in Naples.
And that’s a big deal.
In a historic move, the FDA cleared for human consumption chicken products made from cultured animal cells. Upside Foods, the manufacturer, can begin selling the product after inspection and label approval by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Although the regulatory approval is narrow, limited to cultivated chicken made by Upside, the FDA said it is ready to work with other companies that are developing cultured animal cell food. Expect approvals for cultured beef and pork in the near future.
Why the excitement?
There are huge downstream ramifications.
- Factory-grown meat would eliminate the need to raise and slaughter billions of animals.
- Global water usage could be cut substantially and vast rangelands put to other uses.
- The resulting meat products would have no residual pesticides or hormones.
- Controlled manufacture would reduce the risk of contamination and illness.
The impact on climate change could be a game-changer. According to the EPA, livestock and farm animals contribute 8% of global greenhouse gases – primarily methane from belching, flatulence and feces. Elimination or even reduction of those emissions would have a big impact on global warming.
Just what is lab-grown meat?
Cells from living animals are cultured, nutrients are added and the cells replicated in bio-reactors, generating a product with muscle, fat and connective tissue – a slab that looks and tastes like meat from a slaughtered animal.
That’s an over-simplification, of course. The devil is in the details, and the process has been refined by many firms in many countries over decades. Eat Just received approval in Singapore for cell-made chicken in 2020.
Laboratory-grown meat is the latest iteration that started with veggie burgers some years ago. The mixture of ground-up vegetables tasted terrible and never caught on.
A big improvement came with a meat substitute made from a mycoprotein from fermented yeast combined with other plant ingredients. Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods parlayed that into an international business that lost money almost from the start, in part because the food didn’t taste like real meat.
Cell-grown meat does. And its process has been largely proven. Neta Levon, R&D head of Aleph Farms in Israel, said, “We know we can build meat tissue. The problems are scale and cost.”
Market introduction will be gradual. Several years ago, Christopher Kerr, chief investment officer of New Crop Capital, an investor in future-food companies, said, “You have to be patient… cell-based meat will enter the market slowly, but once it does, it will be revolutionary.”
How did it all start? Where did cultured cell food come from? Like many innovations, it came from medical research. Tissue engineering techniques were pioneered as a means of regenerating damaged skin, replacing tissue that was burned or lost to frostbite.
It was picked up by biochemists and adapted to food in the early 2000s. The first cultured hamburger was demonstrated in 2013, and food scientists followed that up with slabs of pork and cultured grouper, all while perfecting the cell growth technique.
The rest, as they say, is history.
After approvals are obtained, startups around the world – 28 of them at this writing – are poised to begin production. It’s a remarkable achievement.
The question now is customer acceptance. Would you eat a cheeseburger containing patties made in a factory? Or laboratory grown fish fillets? Or turkey slices that don’t come from a real gobbler?
You’ll have a chance to decide very soon. Scale-up grown fish could begin as early as 2024.
And that’s no bull.
About the Author
Dr. Trecker is a chemist and retired Pfizer executive living in Naples.