In 1932, Winston Churchill shocked a few by saying, “Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”
Fast-forward 88 years, and scientists are getting there with cell-based meat — building meat by duplicating harvested animal cells cultivated in a bioreactor. That’s the simple definition of the process; it’s much more complicated and has been in the works as early as 1971, the year in vitro cultivation of muscle fibers was reported when a researcher grew guinea pig aortic smooth muscle in petri dishes.
The man-made meat has many names including lab-grown, cell-based, clean, in vitro and cultured. However, the early label of “clean meat” was preferred by supporters, because the meat is grown in a sterile lab and therefore is cleaner than meat from slaughtered animals. However, that claim was met with pushback from the animal industry.
The National Pork Producers Council, the North American Meat Institute, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Chicken Council objected to the clean meat label, calling it antagonistic to the industry by implying livestock meat is dirty.
As you might imagine, those in the animal industry also have labels for the product, including fake, artificial and synthetic.
Not many Americans — only 5% — think such meat substitutes should be labeled as “meat” without further explanation, according to a survey conducted by Consumers Union, which has also called for more transparency.
There are several cultured meat companies leading the charge, including Just, Memphis Meats, Mosa Meat and Future Meat Technologies.
Memphis Meats’ website says, “Our goal is to transform how food gets to the plate, while continuing to eat what we love. Same great taste, better for the planet.”
I was explaining this process of cultivating meat to my husband and asked what he thought; his immediate reaction was, “That’s scary.” But, after a few questions, he tempered with, “Well, I’d have to know more, but I wouldn’t pay more for it, and it would have to have the same taste and texture.”
That’s pretty consistent with the American public. According to data from food and agriculture marketing firm Charleston|Orwig, only 3% of consumers expressed “no reservations” about eating such products, while 57% responded, “No, absolutely not.” A third survey, by food trends research firm Datassential, found that 68% said they were “not interested” in cultured meats.
It seems a little too “out there” yet, but change is often difficult to accept at first.
Push for alternatives
There are several factors driving demand for meat and alternative ways of producing it, including the world’s looming protein shortage. A 2011 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) report predicts worldwide meat consumption to increase by 73% by 2050.
Where are we going to raise these animals? The livestock sector already consumes about 70% of global agricultural land, divided between animal grazing and feed crops, according to a report by Maastricht University professor Mark Post published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.
Consumers are increasingly looking for, and buying, larger quantities of products seen as more humane — and questioning the environmental impact, sustainability and ethical issues associated with livestock production. There’s also concern for greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
While there seems to be some support for plant-based alternatives to meat — like the Impossible Burger — cultivated meat has several challenges ahead. One of them is the cost. In 2013, the first lab-created burger was reported to have cost $330,000. In 2016, Memphis Meats presented the first lab-grown meatball at a cost of $18,000 per pound. Scientists predict that if the process can be scaled to the commercial level, it could be reduced to $10 per pound. Some companies are saying they will have limited consumer availability of lab-created meat in 2021.
The marketing strategy to win consumer interest and support will be challenging.
Producing cultured ground meat might happen in the near future, but growing structured meats with added fat — like a juicy rib-eye — seems to be a lofty goal. We’ll see where technology takes us.