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Companies are working on growing meat (called Cultivated Meat) outside of animals, but making large volumes remains a challenge. There is also a massive debate brewing, should we be even looking at this alternative. What are the “true benefits”? What are the potential pitfalls? Is it really going to help the environment in the long run?


Lab-grown meat is getting closer to retail sale in the U.S., but it likely won’t be widely consumed soon.

The fledgling industry, which generally prefers the name cultivated meat, cleared a hurdle in November when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration indicated it viewed chicken meat developed by Upside Foods as safe to eat. In March, the FDA also gave a nod to cultivated chicken made by Good Meat, an arm of Eat Just Inc.

Both companies still have to receive clearance from the Agriculture Department before selling any cultivated chicken to consumers in the U.S. Even then, they will likely be available only in small quantities.


So what is cultivated meat, and how do they make it?

Cultivated meat contains meat grown from animal cells.

To produce it, companies take a sample of stem cells from an animal, often through a biopsy from a live animal or a fertilized egg.

Those cells are grown in vessels of varying sizes aimed at maintaining the right temperature, along with a mixture containing amino acids, sugars and other nutrients needed for the cells to grow.

The process produces just meat — not complete animals with bones and nervous systems.

After a period of weeks, the cells are harvested and formed into shapes that consumers recognize, such as chicken breasts or meatballs.

Some companies are aiming to make whole cuts of meat, a complex, expensive and time-consuming process.

Others are choosing to blend cultivated meat cells with additional ingredients, such as plant-based protein. This can typically be done with a slurry of cells produced through a simpler process that is cheaper and easier to scale up.


Are animals hurt during the process?

Collecting the initial sample of cells often doesn’t hurt the animal. But there are times when a sample is taken from something like a small shrimp, for example, that doesn’t survive.

And to help the cells grow, some companies have often used fetal bovine serum, which is harvested from fetal calves, though they have indicated they might not do so in the future. Upside Foods has said it has developed a mixture to feed the cells that doesn’t use any animal components. However, the company isn’t using that process to produce its first commercial product, a chicken filet.


What is the point of cultivating meat?

Many people object to the killing of animals for human consumption, something the cultivation process could greatly reduce. People who want to eat meat could do so without worrying about the welfare of animals raised in the conventional meat industry.

There is also an environmental argument: Supporters hope that producing cultivated meat and seafood can help feed more people with a smaller environmental impact since it is expected to use less land and reduce air pollution. The facilities that produce cultivated meat use a lot of energy. Using renewable energy could shrink cultivated meat’s carbon footprint further.

Supporters also note that cultivating meat in a controlled environment should greatly reduce the need for antibiotics often given to livestock, in response to concerns about antimicrobial resistance, and cut down on foodborne diseases.


How is cultivated meat different from plant-based meat?

Plant-based meats don’t start with animal cells. Instead, components of plants are mixed to try to mimic the taste and texture of meat. Beyond Meat Inc., for example, uses yellow-pea protein, potato starch, canola oil and other ingredients to make burger patties, sausages and nuggets.


What has been the reaction of animal-rights groups?

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, cheered the FDA’s stance that Upside’s chicken is safe to eat. “We’re over the moon to see ‘slaughter-less meat’ becoming a reality,” said PETA Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman. However, until it is available, the group wants people to give up meat and dairy products now.


What does the industry still have to figure out?

Although companies can make small quantities of cultivated meat and seafood, it is proving much harder to make large volumes at low cost — key to becoming competitive with conventional meat producers.

Cultivated meat companies have to battle contamination, which can ruin a batch of meat, as well as many other technical challenges involved in growing finicky cells in bioreactors. Many elements of the process, including the equipment and the supplies used to feed the cells, are expensive, keeping production costs high.


How much will cultivated meat cost?

Cultivated meat companies hope to eventually sell cultivated meat at the same price or below that of conventional meat, but that could be many years away.

Still, the industry has made progress. When Dutch scientist Mark Post unveiled for the first time a burger made with lab-grown beef on camera in 2013, it cost $330,000 to make. The CEO of Upside said in 2017 that the company could make a pound of meat for less than $2,400, down from $18,000 in 2016. The company has declined to provide more-recent figures but said it expects to initially sell its product at a premium to conventional meat.


How do conventional meat companies view cultivated meat?

Some traditional meat companies, including Tyson Foods Inc. TSN 0.93%increase; green up pointing triangle and Cargill Inc., have invested in cultivated-meat startups. Meat companies are under pressure from consumers and investors to reduce their emissions, diminish their reliance on animal drugs and to treat livestock more humanely. Officials at those companies have said they view cultivated meat as another option to offer alongside conventional meat.

For its part, Cargill believes the cultivated meat industry has shown promising progress. However, the company sees scaling up production and high costs as continuing challenges and says it expects it will be the mid-2030s before the meat is produced in significant volumes.


When will people be able to eat it?

In December 2020, Singapore became the first — and so far the only — country to approve cultivated meat for sale. In the U.S., Upside and Good Meat’s cultivated chicken still needs to clear regulatory hurdles with the USDA, which oversees the part of the production process after the cells are harvested.

Upside has said it would launch its first product, the chicken filet, on a small scale: at Atelier Crenn, a three-star Michelin restaurant in San Francisco.


What does it taste like?

People who sampled cultivated chicken from Upside Foods in 2017, when the company was known as Memphis Meats, gave it good reviews, saying it was tender and tasted like the real thing.



ORIGINAL ARTICLE WRITTEN BY: By Kristina Peterson and Jesse Newman (The Wall Street Journal)