USDA Declares Lab-Grown Meat Safe for Human Consumption. Will You Eat It?

Ygnacio Garcia-Saladrigas – In 2023, the USDA granted permission to two businesses, Upside Foods and Good Meat, to produce and sell chicken cultivated from a culture of animal cells. The decision makes the United States the second country after Singapore to allow the sale of lab-grown meat. Supporters of the new technology praise it for providing a cruelty-free, more environmentally-friendly alternative to natural meat while preserving natural meat’s flavor better than plant-based alternatives (like the Impossible Burger). Critics argue that the production of lab-grown meat will produce more carbon emissions than raising and slaughtering livestock and can be difficult if not impossible to produce at scale due to high costs.

Lab grown, or “cultivated,” meat is authentic animal-derived meat grown through the direct culturing of animal cells. This bypasses traditional animal farming for food production. It utilizes identical cell types arranged in comparable structures to animal tissues, thereby mimicking the sensory and nutritional characteristics of conventional meat. The production process starts with the acquisition and preservation of stem cells extracted from an animal. These cells are subsequently cultured in bioreactors where they are nourished with a pharmaceutical-grade mixture of essential nutrients like amino acids, glucose, vitamins, and inorganic salts, supplemented with growth factors and additional proteins. This mixture mirrors the natural physiological environment found within an animal’s body and allows the cells to proliferate at high densities and volumes. Modifications in the composition of the mixture prompt undifferentiated cells to develop into the various components of meat—including skeletal muscle, fat, and connective tissues. Once differentiated, these cells are  ready to be harvested. The duration of this process typically ranges from 2 to 8 weeks, depending on the type of meat being cultivated.

Some predict that cultivated meat will require fewer resources than naturally-produced meat and have the potential to mitigate pollution associated with agriculture. According to some studies, if cultivated meat is generated using renewable energy sources, it could slash greenhouse gas emissions by up to 92% and diminish land use by up to 90% compared to traditional beef production methods. Moreover, some anticipate commercial cultivation to be entirely antibiotic-free. This could create fewer cases of foodborne illness, as the population would have reduced exposure to enteric pathogens. Additionally, supporters of cultivated meat argue that it is more ethical than natural meat because it does not require the slaughter of animals or raising animals in inhumane conditions (such as those in factory farms).

Producers of cultivated meat face a complex regulatory framework involving multiple federal agencies. To ensure that consumers know what they are eating and that the food is safe, the FDA and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (“FSIS,” a division of the USDA) established a joint regulatory framework for foods made from cultivated meat. Under that framework, the FDA oversees the collection, growth, and differentiation of animal cells into their various types. Then, FSIS assumes jurisdiction, overseeing the harvesting of the cultivated cells and the processing, labeling, and packaging of the finished product. Regulation of cultivated meat depends on the animal species used as the source of the cultured cells and is based on the agencies’ jurisdiction over products. For example, the FDA has jurisdiction over all live animals to be used for food until they are presented for slaughter. The FSIS oversees the slaughter, processing, packaging, and labeling of animals regulated under the Federal Meat Inspection Act (cows, sheep, pigs, goats, and certain fish) or the Poultry Products Inspection Act (chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, guineas, ratites, and squab). For foods not regulated under either act, the FDA has sole jurisdiction. The FDA’s approach to overseeing the production of cultivated meat will involve “a thorough pre-market consultation process” and “inspections of records and facilities.” Then, establishments intending to produce cultivated meat must obtain a USDA grant of inspection for such products using existing procedures. Upside Foods and Good Meat are the first companies to make it through this regulatory framework and receive permission to sell their cultivated meat products. Both companies are dipping their toes in the market by debuting their products at specific restaurants: Upside’s at Bar Crenn in San Fransisco, and Good Meat’s at an undisclosed restaurant in DC.

Cultivated meat does not come without concerns. First, under current production methods, mass-production of cultivated meat could be significantly more damaging to the environment than natural meat. Researchers at UC Davis found that such mass production could produce between four and twenty-five times more emissions than the beef industry. This is largely because production of cultivated meat is currently only possible using pharmaceutical-grade nutrient mixes, which require large amounts of energy to purify. This could be mitigated by using less pure food-grade nutrient mixes, but no company has cracked that process yet.

Next, cultivated meat is very expensive. One researcher estimated that cultivated meat could cost as much as forty dollars per pound at the grocery store, much higher than the average cost of five dollars per pound of ground beef. In addition, many doubt the cultivated meat industry’s scalability: “to build out cultivated meat production to reach 1 percent of the protein market would need between 220 million to 440 million liters of fermentation capacity, or roughly 88 to 176 Olympic-size swimming pools. For perspective, the current biopharma industry has less than 10 swimming pools of capacity.” Finally, some argue that there are biological limitations that render scaling up cultivated meat production impossible. There are only so many cells that one can pack into a fermenter without killing the cells, and that threshold is not high enough for growing meat to be cost-effective.  

Upside Foods and Good Meat have shown us that it is possible to get cultivated meat products to market. Getting consumers to try it is a different hurdle. Will you eat the lab-grown meat?

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