Explained | What is lab-grown meat and what did the U.S. recently approve?

A 2021 report estimated that there were 107 companies in 24 countries – including two from India – developing lab-grown meat.

Updated - June 23, 2023 04:38 pm IST

Published - June 23, 2023 03:35 pm IST

The proponents of cell-cultivated chicken have argued that cell-cultivated meat will preclude animal slaughter. Representative photo.

The proponents of cell-cultivated chicken have argued that cell-cultivated meat will preclude animal slaughter. Representative photo. | Photo Credit: Alexas_Fotos/Unsplash

“Cell-cultivated chicken” – that’s the official name of chicken meat that is grown in a laboratory for human consumption. On June 21, two California-based companies were cleared to make and sell cell-cultivated chicken in the country in what is being hailed by stakeholders in the concept as a major step forward for reducing the carbon emissions associated with the food industry worldwide.

What happened on June 21?

The two companies, Good Meat and Upside Foods, have received the U.S. government’s approval to make and sell their cell-cultivated chicken.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration was involved in the regulatory process but didn’t technically approve the products because the process doesn’t require an approval.

In such cases, a company in question is required to conduct a safety assessment of its own facilities and the veracity of its production process. Sometimes, in order to boost consumer and investor confidence, it may consult with the FDA. At the end of this process, if the FDA is satisfied by the company’s submissions, it will send a “no questions” letter, signalling the regulatory body’s tacit approval.

The FDA provided such letters to Upside in November 2022 and to Good Meat in March 2023.

In June, the U.S. Department of Agriculture finalised the label “cell-cultivated chicken” for the product being sold, and provided a ‘grant of inspection’, which is required to operate production facilities.

What is cell-cultivated chicken?

To make cell-cultivated meat, these two companies isolate the cells that make up this meat (the meat that we consume), and put them in a setting where they have all the resources they need to grow and make more copies of themselves. These resources are typically nutrients, fats, carbohydrates, amino acids, the right temperature, etc.

The ‘setting’ in which this process transpires is often a bioreactor (also known as a ‘cultivator’), a sensor-fit device – like a container – that has been designed to support a particular biological environment. (Because of the techniques involved, producing meat in this way is also called cellular agriculture.)

Once these cells have become sufficiently large in number, which takes around two to three weeks in Upside’s process, they resemble a mass of minced meat. They are collected and then processed, with additives to improve their texture and/or appearance, and are destined for various recipes.

Which forms of cell-cultivated meat exist?

After pork, chicken is the second most widely consumed meat in the world, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) – but in the U.S. it has been the highest consumed meat since 2010.

Good Meat and Upside have thus far focused on chicken, and plan to expand their offerings to include other meats in future. The New York Times wrote that “beef, with its higher fat content and more complex flavour, is harder to replicate.”

Researchers are also developing cell-cultivated versions of sea bass, tuna, shrimp, and pork. A 2021 report estimated that there were 107 companies in 24 countries (including two from India). The first country to approve the sale of alternative meat was Singapore in 2020.

The consulting firm McKinsey has estimated that the global alternative meat market could have $20-25 billion in sales by 2030.

Why was cell-cultivated meat created?

Its proponents have advanced the following arguments in favour of developing lab-grown meat: emissions, land use, prevention of animal slaughter, food security, and customisation.

The first two are related to climate mitigation. The FAO has estimated that global livestock is responsible for 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse-gas emissions. Of this, the production of beef as a commodity accounted for 41%, whereas chicken meat and eggs accounted for 8%. Similarly, the 2021 report estimated that lab-cultivated meat would use 63% less land in the case of chicken and 72% in the case of pork.

Climate scientists have also asked people – especially in richer countries – to reduce their meat consumption, but carnivorous diets remain popular, in turn maintaining lab-grown meat as a promising alternative. Its proponents have also advanced such meat as a way to meet the world’s nutritional security needs.

Finally, some experts have said that lab-grown meat can be customised to be healthier than their animal counterpart, such as being designed to contain less fat, thus contributing to public health.

What are the challenges?

Consumer acceptance – Perfectly substituting animal meat with alternative meat requires the latter to match the former’s taste, texture, and appearance, and cost. Researchers have achieved some success on these counts but it remains a work in progress, especially as more meats acquire alternative counterparts.

Cost – The cost of cell-cultivated meat is expected to remain high in the near future. One 2020 analysis even concluded that it may never be cost-competitive, while reports have also expressed concerns about the costs imposed by quality control, especially at scale.

Resources – For the cellular cultivation process, researchers require high quality cells to begin with (plus information about how different cell types contribute to the ‘meat’), a suitable growth-medium in which the cells can be cultured, plus other resources required to maintain the quality of the final product.

Criticism – A recent study by researchers at the University of California, Davis, found that if cell cultivation requires a “highly refined growth medium”, akin to that used in in the pharmaceutical industry, then the “environmental impact of near-term [cell-cultivated meat] production is likely to be orders of magnitude higher than median beef production.” The paper is yet to be peer-reviewed.

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