All About Lab-Grown Meat & Fish

Global warming is driving the planet to the brink of destruction and a large part of this problem is meat production. Scientists estimate that meat production causes about 60% of all greenhouse gasses, surprisingly surpassing automobile usage and other similar polluting elements. In a world that loves meat, is there anything that can be done to help cut down on this destructive pattern?

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Scientists seem to think so, as they’ve been focusing heavily on the concept of lab-grown meat in recent years. This concept has been catching fire since the first lab-grown meat debuted in 2013. Will this idea become mainstream or will it remain an underground concept or one that only people with a lot of money can enjoy properly? Let’s take a deep dive into this subject to learn more about how lab meat may end up on your plate sooner, rather than later.

Understanding Lab Meat

Laboratory meat (or cultured meat) is a unique concept recently gaining traction in the scientific world. It is a type of genetically produced meat that is create by cultivating animal cells in a laboratory. Rather than raising animals on farms and spending money on their expensive upkeep, scientists can grow meat right in a lab: the meat is never attached to a live animal but is instead grown in a growth medium.

Scientists typically gather the proper cells without hurting animals, when possible. For example, company “Eat Just” owned a chicken named Ian who they kept in healthy shape while they waited for him to shed a feather. Once he lost a feather, they used it to draw cells that could create chicken that was created without animal suffering. In this way, Ian did not suffer any pain or scientific study.

Naturally, not all groups will gather cells in this way. Often, scientists must draw cells from animal fetuses while in utero (without damaging or aborting the fetus), which some may protect is cruel. However, the process is done in as streamlined and safe a manner as possible and without hurting the animal. Once the cells are collected,t hey are carefully grown in a unique growing medium.

How This Process Works

Cultured meat. female scientist taking notes in laboratory

After taking the proper cells from an animal, scientists carefully prepare a growth medium into which the cells are placed. This growth medium is genetically the same as the medium in which the cells would normally develop. What happens, then, is that the cells get tricked into thinking that they are still a part of the animal’s body. As a result, they continue to grow and develop into a piece of meat.

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As a result, lab-grown meat is genetically identical to any meat taken from its host animal. That said, science experts have the ability to change the genetics of the meat in many ways. For example, lab-grown meat is fat-free because scientists can adjust a cell’s fat production to be essentially nothing. And as it is not attached to an animal eating food to survive, it does not contain any innate fat.

Scientists may also adjust the nutrient content in meat, adding vitamins and minerals that normal meat does not possess. However, many companies may be against changing meat in such a way and focus more heavily on presenting it as nature intended. It all depends on the purpose behind the company and any other steps that they may want to take with meat preparation and alteration.

A Brief History: So Far

Lab-grown meat doesn’t have an extensive history so far, though it has long been a dream of many in the medical and science field. The first laboratory grown burger was created in 2013 by Dutch scientists. They presented their burger in a press conference and revealed its cost: $280,000. That high number was considered ludicrous at the time and most believed cell-based meat would never be low-cost enough to thrive.

Lead scientist on the project, Mark Post, stated that this cost took into account all of the hours spent researching, experimenting, and failing before success. The scale was small and the science so new that it was expensive to use properly. Since then, scientists better understand the process, feel more comfortable with it, and execute it at a much higher and skilled level than they did in 2013.

As a result, Post founded Mosa Meat in an attempt to get this lab-grown meat to the market. Since then, a growing number of companies have joined suit. Post has estimated that cell-grown meat (specifically hamburgers) could be as low as nine euros (approximately $10 USD) when production reaches its peak. That low cost could attract many people looking for an inexpensive and healthy meat alternative.

Food safety and quality control - Microbiological analysis of salmon fish in laboratory

While the first cell-based meats have focused heavily on beef and other similar animal-based products, fish may soon be on the menu as well. Though harvesting fish isn’t as damaging to the environment as raising cows, pigs, and other livestock, fish population is also harder to control. It’s much harder to track their location, even in fish farms, and keeping them healthy is often a challenging process.

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Even worse, many environmentalists fear that harvesting too many fish could unbalance the delicate ecosystem of the oceans and lakes around the world. Even now, many believe that some once-common fish species are either extinct or extremely endangered. The nature of the ocean and the difficulty of tracking fish movement make these studies much harder than with animals.

Thankfully, several cell-based meat companies are focusing on fish production as a way to relieve this burden. For example, Shiok Meats out of Singapore produces cell-based seafood, including lobster, crab, and shrimp meals. They are amping up their producing in the hope of producing inexpensive and sustainable seafood soon, providing the world with a healthier alternative.

After all, much seafood is polluted with heavy metals, as these items often sink and get eaten by bottom-dwelling animals that, in turn, get eaten by common game fish. Companies like Wildtype is producing artificial salmon to help overcome this danger, focusing on a slaughter-free design that takes cells from fish without pain and grows them in a safe and controlled laboratory environment.

Other types of cell-based products include beef steaks (Aleph Farms), chicken, meatballs, and duck (Memphis Meats), dairy products (Remilk) and even pet food (Because Animals). Surprisingly, many meat-based companies are attempting this transition with open arms. Tyson Foods has invested in several cell-meat companies in an attempt to transition to a safer and healthier world.

How Lab Meat is Grown

We briefly touched on the production process for laboratory meat but want to discuss it in more depth here to give you a better understanding of how it works. Many readers may read the words “lab-grown meat” and feel their stomach turn. That’s understandable because it’s hard to imagine artificial meat tasting any good. Here’s the thing about that, though: lab-grown meat is not artificial meat.

Artificial meat is any product that uses alternatives to meat, such as soy beans, to produce a meat-like texture. While many of these artificial meats taste good when properly prepared, their texture is rarely meat-like and their taste is far different from beef, chicken, fish, lamb, or pork. The flavor may be quite good after you adjust your expectations, but it rarely truly tastes like the meat its attempting to emulate.

Lab-grown meat is different. It is not artificial nor an attempt to emulate meat: it is real meat grown from real meat cells. Yes, the meat didn’t grow on an animal. But it is genetically identical to animal-grown meat and differs in no way from it on a base level. If you were to eat a lab-grown hamburger, you would never know that it wasn’t grown on an animal unless you were told.

The Creation Process

Lab-meat creation starts by drawing cells from a parent animal using any number of methods. We already discussed one company that waits for chickens to shed feathers from which they draw DNA. Other companies may wait for animals to lose skin cells or take samples of hair to get their core genetic material. That said, other companies draw animal cells directly from the animal’s skin.

This process starts by carefully anesthetizing the injection site to minimize animal discomfort. Blood or other DNA sources are drawn into a hypodermic needle from this injection site. The animal may feel a slight sense of discomfort during the shot but experience no long-term effects. After the drawing is over, the scientists treat the wound and cover it to prevent infection or other issues.

At this point, the parent animals is now out of the picture and is either sent home to their farm or kept on site in a comfortable and open environment. Typically, lab-grown meat companies need just one source animal for each meat type they produce. Once they have these cells, they can use them to produce a surprising array of meat types by placing them in bioreactors for growth.

Bioreactors help stimulate cell growth once the animal’s DNA is placed in a bath of nutrients. Within this medium, the cells grow and produce real meat. Scientists use various forms and shapes (called scaffoldings) to help shape the meat. In this way, they can produce hamburgers, fish, steaks, nuggets, and even sushi that will taste identical to any meat grown traditionally.

People are Ready to Enjoy Lab-Grown Meats

Those who’ve never heard of lab-grown meat before this post may wonder if the world is truly ready for this type of meat alternative. A few studies have examined this question and produced surprisingly diverse results. For example, one study found that 19% of Americans would try cell-based meat, while 18% of British people would try it. These numbers are obviously not incredibly high.

However, this poll has the natural limitations inherent to all polling information. It asked only around 31,000 Americans and 9,000 British people their opinions on cell-based meat. Based on where they drew their samples, this information could change dramatically. For instance, polling people in rural areas may result in high negatives, as people in the community may rely on farming as an income source.

In fact, a more recent study (2018) found that as many as 66% of Americans would be willing to try this type of cultured meat. Obviously, the difference between 19% and 66% is tremendous. Which of these polls is more accurate? That all depends on many factors, including the size of the poll, the methods use, and the location of the polling. There’s obviously a large margin of error here.

Our suggestion is to split the difference between the two for a general idea of how many people may want to try meat. That leaves you with about 40-42% of Americans willing to try cell-based meats. That number could obviously be higher or lower but is probably closer to reality than 19% or 66%. Could those numbers go up in the future? It’s very possible, especially if scientists can make these meats healthier than traditional meats.

Could Cell-Based Meats Be Healthier?

Assortment of plant based meat on a table. Food to reduce carbon footprint, sustainable consumption

Beyond meat’s negative environmental impact is its impact on national health. Meat is incredibly high in cholesterol and saturated fat and can lead to obesity, heart conditions, and much more. Some people may even experience bowel obstructions and other issues when eating too much meat, a problem that for some counteracts the healthy protein contained within meat’s textures.

Even worse, modern meat growth typically uses a large amount of antibiotics and growth hormones that concern many people. Antibiotics are often a desperate attempt by questionable factory farms, as they keep animals alive without improving their living conditions. These antibiotics trigger a high growth of antibiotic-resistant infections, which currently lead to 700,000 deaths every year.

Many fear that continued factory farming could lead to millions of deaths due to antibiotic-resistant bacteria every year. How? The more bacteria is exposed to antibiotics, the more resistant they’re likely to become to it. Unfortunately, these resistant growths are more likely to thrive and spread, leading to a chain-reaction that could kill a staggering amount of people and cause much suffering.

How Lab-Grown Meat May Help

These health and safety dangers could all be avoided by focusing meat production on lab-created meat. Scientists can easily change how much cholesterol and fat is in meat, essentially bringing these numbers down to zero. As they’ve mapped the genomes for the meat they are producing, they can simply change a few genes here and there and produce healthier and higher-quality meat.

Even better, lab-grown meat could prevent the dangers of antibiotic-resistant infections because no antibiotics are necessary when creating lab-grown meat. Scientists can also naturally increase a meat’s resistant to infections like e.coli and salmonella, thereby making meat even safer to eat. Just as importantly, lab-grown meat could help against the dangers of growth hormones.

As no growth hormones are used when creating this meat, exposure to these chemicals would revert back to zero. Many scientists believe this step is crucial because various governing bodies have found that these hormones could cause developmental and neurobiological effects and may even lead to poisoning or a higher cancer risk when exposed to at high enough levels.

Could It Help With the Environment?

Lab-grown meat is not exactly carbon-free because it still draws upon a lot of energy for its production. Scientists need to run labs, utilize various electrical equipment, and use high amounts of energy to keep their meat healthy. This fact is important to consider because some proponents claim that lab-grown meat is carbon-free or close to it, which is clearly not the truth when examined properly.

That said, lab grown meat is still likely to be less environmentally damaging than factory farming. For example, all those animals packed in a single farm produce a high amount of carbon waste that artificially raises the planet’s temperature and causes other issues. Unfortunately, poor environmental laws make it hard to track the true carbon footprint of farms in many countries.

Put simply, though, the carbon footprint of a typical factory farm is amazing inefficient. The amount of energy used to feed, store, and butcher animals for meat far outweighs the amount of meat produced. Lab-grown meat would create a carbon footprint, this is true, but the less animal-based growing methods would produce a higher volume of meat for a much lower carbon footprint.

Just how much more efficient is lab meat over farm meat? The cells drawn from a single cow can produce 175 million quarter-pound burgers, an astonishing amount of meat from one animal. By comparison, it would require killing nearly 450,000 cows to get the same amount of meat. The real kicker here? The cows that donated the cells for lab meat doesn’t have to die.

Unfortunately, beyond this fact, not many studies on this subject have been published, yet, as the artificial meat industry has yet to truly take off. Some proponents have argued that a higher use of renewable energy (such as solar or wind power) to work these laboratories may help cut back on their carbon footprint even further. Until this market becomes more widespread, the real impact may be hard to predict.

Is Lab-Grown Meat Vegan? A Debate is Already Rising

African chemist injecting at lab-grown vegan meat sample for microbiology expertise. Scientist woman working on plant-blased beef substitute in biochemistry lab researching modified genetically food.

Lab-grown meat companies are technically not focusing their efforts on vegans but on people who already eat meat. The latest estimates find that only about one-percent of the world’s population identifies as vegans, meaning that marketing specifically to this group would be a very niche move. Lab-meat companies are trying to replace factory farms and traditional meat on a larger scale.

However, the question of lab-grown meat’s vegan status has already become a big debate in the vegan community. Those who aren’t familiar with the vegan world may not realize that many different belief systems exist throughout its population. Not every vegan follows the same strict guidelines or may be vegan for different reasons. That said, it is important to establish a few base points.

According to vegan guidelines, lab-grown meat is not vegan because it is made out of animal cells. Even if these cells have been grown in a laboratory setting and no animals were hurt in its production, the meat is still an animal. So, according to very strict vegan guidelines, even lab-grown meat would not be an option. Many vegans are likely to follow these rules, particularly if they don’t like how labs use animals to produce meat.

That said, some vegans with less stringent guidelines may try and even enjoy lab-created meat. They could justify their consumption on the idea that no animals were harmed during its production

So while not all vegans may eat this lab-grown meat, will many of them support it for others as a healthier alternative? That may depend on the person. Some will claim that even meat created in this manner is cruel and unacceptable, while others will appreciate how much suffering it eliminates. In whatever case, this market is not likely to be focused heavily on vegan eaters.

Concerns About Lab-Grown Meat

While the transformative potential of lab-grown meat is very high, it’s not all sunrise and roses. As with any innovation, issues around its implementation have already arisen: and very little lab-grown meat is available on the market. These issues must be highlighted here to increase your understanding of the debates surrounding this meat and its  unique implementation on the market.

Complaints About Fetal Bovine Serum

Some people have complained about the use of an item known as fetal bovine serum when creating lab meat. This serum comes from calf fetuses, specifically that drawn from unborn calves technically aborted when their mothers are slaughtered at factory farms. These farms collect this serum and send it to scientists and some (but not all) lab-created meat companies.

The problem here is that these companies are technically relying on a serum drawn from a group that they are technically supposed to replace. Lab-created meat is designed to minimize animal suffering, and drawing on slaughterhouses for any of their ingredients technically supports the very cruelty that they’re trying to avoid. Complaints about this issue have already affected at least one manufacturer.

This company (Eat Just) uses what they call a “very low level” of this serum when producing chicken-based products. Their lab-grown products have already hit the market and, when it was found they were using fetal bovine serum, protects broke out almost immediately. These ethical concerns caused many within the alternate meat community to wonder why companies even bothered to create lab meat if they still supported slaughterhouses.

While these complaints were far from universal, Eat Just (to its credit) responded positively. They are currently developing an animal-free alternative to this serum that will work just as well. The idea behind this creation is to use the cells drawn from past samples to create a sample in a lab setting. Their progress has not been reported, though they seem committed to its development and implementation.

Concerns About the High Price

Other people are currently concerned about lab-grown meat’s price, with many claiming it is likely to remain only a niche product for the very rich. While the price is obviously not going to be in the thousands of dollars, some companies are already discussing prices as high as $50 per serving. That higher price will put lab-grown meat entirely out of the reach of a large number of individuals.

Unfortunately, the very people who may benefit the most from this meat (working-class people who may have a history of poor eating decisions) may be unable to enjoy this option. Simply put, feeding their families every day without going bankrupt is likely to be higher on their priorities list than improving their health and minimizing environmental damage with a lab-grown meat.

Even these companies have already pledged that prices will go down as production is increased and cheaper alternatives are created for many ingredients. Currently, one of the most expensive of these items is, appropriately enough, fetal bovine serum. Getting this item from slaughterhouses requires careful preparation and preservation and adds considerably to the price of this product.

Once these alternatives are created, it is likely that prices will continually drop and make this product more affordable. The ultimate goal of this lab-meat is to either completely replace or heavily supplant traditional meat production. As a result, it is important that these businesses take the necessary steps to decrease their product prices or they may remain a niche product with minimal market impact.

Confusion Around Lab-Meat Classification

Another common concern about lab-meat is its classification and the nomenclature used to describe it legally. The USDA is particularly concerned about this prospect because they create rules and guidelines controlling the production and selling of all foods. The unique nature of laboratory meat creates a position that requires a careful hand and a lot of consideration before getting right.

The USDA has already released an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking or ANPR that typically precedes any new laws or guidelines created for various types of foods. They are currently soliciting comments on this product, particularly in how to label and sell cell-cultured meat, fish, and poultry. They’re concerned because a growing number of startups are developing throughout the market.

The major issues here focus on the lack of cell-based labels and rules. This production method is so new that it has yet to become heavily regulated and controlled. There’s simply no rules in place for it just yet, meaning that the USDA and other regulatory groups continue to investigate these products and seek ways to create new labels and rulings that help make this process smoother and easier.

The reality here is that rules and guidelines may heavily change as the market changes. For example, rules on labeling may change as more cell-based products emerge, creating a more detailed understanding of the market. Furthermore, other restrictions may change based on any adverse effects that may develop as more lab-grown meat spreads throughout the market.