For as long as our species has existed, we’ve eaten meat. However, over the past several decades there has been a growing push toward vegetarian and veganism. While these movements often get associated with PETA and other animal rights’ organizations, an increasing faction is focusing on the environmental impacts of the commercial meat industry. From sanitary concerns to growing carbon footprints, more Americans than ever before are monitoring their meat consumption in one way or another.
Many consumers are not willing to give up meat entirely, though, which has led to growing interest in the field of cultivated meat (also known as cultured, cell-based meat). This product is created directly from animal cells, but doesn’t require raising or slaughtering them. This means the meat is theoretically safer, since there’s no possibility of contaminated by fecal matter or antibiotics. By removing living animals from the equation, the industry could not only avoid wasting animal parts, but could also save resources required to raise animals in the traditional way since they would only need to generate and sustain cultured cells, and not an entire organism from birth.
While no cultivated meat products are currently on the market in any country, several companies are working on development with the hopes of breaking into the $1.4tn a year industry. Cultivated meats are expected to first enter the market in the high-end restaurant scene, shortly followed by the pet food industry, which accounts for a quarter of US meat consumption.
Chicken is the most common cultivated meat prototype since the vaccine industry has been using avian stem cells for years and there is plenty of existing research to draw on. The cultivated meat process begins by taking a biopsy from an animal, then harvesting stem cells from the tissue. These stem cells multiply and differentiate into various primitive fibers, bundling together to form muscle tissue. Since stem cells can mature into any cell type, they can create the variety of cell types, such as muscle and fat, to recreate the flavor of conventional meat.
Although creating the correct type of cells is one accomplishment, it does not mean that scaling up production to a mass market at a competitive price is easy, or even necessarily possible. One obstacle is that the culture medium in which the cells grow is expensive and there’s no guarantee that a small operation will work at large scale. Additionally, the current technology is extremely energy intensive, rebuffing sustainability claims made by the industry.
The main hurdle faced by the cultivated meat market at large, however, is the debate over whether or not such products can be labelled as meat if it hasn’t been harvested from a whole animal. Many consumers still aren’t sure about the so-called “lab-grown meat” and changing public opinion could be very difficult depending on restrictions placed on how the products can be marketed. Cultivated meats in the US market will be jointly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Agriculture but labelling rules and legal classifications have not yet been released.