Cultured Meat: Food of the Future or Weird Science?
Have you ever heard of cultured meat? No, it doesn’t mean the cow took a stroll through a Smithsonian museum or caught a show at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra before slaughter. Also referred to as clean, cell-cultivated, cell-based, and lab-grown meat, cultured meat just might be the next big thing since plant-based meats.
There are quite a few companies across the globe developing a variety of cultured meats (i.e., beef, poultry, and seafood) in different forms, e.g., ground, steaks, etc. Some companies are focusing on the same type of cultured meat and have developed their own production methods. As Beckie Calder-Flynn, Operations Coordinator of Mosa Meat in the Netherlands, says, these methods are “very commercially sensitive as no one has yet launched their products on the market.”
Our brains are very powerful, and the way we interpret language can influence our decisions. The picture in our heads when we hear "lab-grown meat" is certainly not a pleasant one. By simply changing the language, we can allow ourselves to have a more open mind. Basic biology teaches us that the cell is the basic unit of life, that all living things are composed of cells. Cultured meat starts by taking cells from an animal. Calder-Flynn elaborates:
"The cells are fed nutrients and natural growth factors and allowed to proliferate just as they would inside an animal. They proliferate until we get trillions of cells from a small sample. This growth takes place in a bioreactor […]. When we want the cells to differentiate into muscle cells, we simply stop feeding them growth factors, and they differentiate naturally. The cells are then placed in a gel that is 99% water, which helps the cells form the shape of muscle fibers. The muscle fibers contract naturally, causing them to get larger. When thousands of muscle fibers are layered together, we get what we started with – meat. The meat can then be processed using standard food technologies – for example, by putting the meat through a grinder to make ground beef.”
The process from biopsy to quarter-pound hamburger is about ten weeks. The first cells (muscle stem cells) can be obtained from either living or slaughtered animals, but the goal is to only use living animals, as one of the key benefits of all the time and money invested into this science is to create a more sustainable source of meat.
While Calder-Flynn shares that Mosa Meat is still working on upscaling their production to determine exactly how much meat they can develop from one sample, “theoretically, from one sample of less than one gram of muscle we can produce 10,000 kilograms [about 22,000 pounds] of beef, reaching a multiplication factor of ten million.” She continues, “If this is translated into a reduction of cows, we would need only 150 cows to meet the entire world’s meat demand.” That’s a huge reduction in cattle compared to the current estimate of 1.5 billion cows.
Such a drastically smaller number of cattle needing to be raised, fed, and cared for would not only foster a greater sense of animal welfare, but also have significant effects on the planet.
Animal agriculture is one of the major causes of the world’s most grave environmental problems. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), meat consumption is expected to rise over 70 percent by 2050, and the way it’s produced today just isn’t sustainable.
“We believe shifting to cultured meat is important, and necessary,” says Calder-Flynn. “If we want to continue to eat meat, we need a more efficient production method.”
This new way of animal farming would significantly reduce waste, lower food-related emissions, cut pollution, and conserve land and water resources.
A life cycle analysis paper published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology predicted that, based on current published figures and research on livestock farming, complete replacement of conventional meat with cultured meat would result in an up to 98% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, 99% reduction in land use, and up to 96% reduction in water use.
Some critics claim those numbers are arbitrary since a cultured meat production industry does not exist yet. Authors of a 2014 study say, "more research on development of cultured meat technology is needed before more reliable estimates of the environmental impacts can be provided."
And what about the impacts on livestock farmers and slaughter plant employees? For slaughter plant employees, this seems akin to having AI robots take their jobs. No slaughter means no slaughter plant, which means no slaughter plant employees. Mosa Meat admits that switching to cultured meat will make some farming jobs obsolete, but they assure those in the livestock industry are well-suited to take advantage of new opportunities. “For example, farmers already producing feed for animals may have an advantage in transitioning to producing feed for cells, which will be a large new market.”
David Kay, the head of mission for Memphis Meats out of Berkeley, California, said during a panel discussion at the New Harvest Conference in 2017, “We’re not out to transform family farms; we’re out to transform factory farms. There is a place for sustainable high welfare operations.”
Mosa Meat is currently using donor cells from animals that have already been slaughtered for meat, but when they begin production of their meat for the market, Calder-Flynn assures, “we will use cells from live, healthy donor animals.” When cells are taken from these animals, it is done with a biopsy under anesthesia, which does not harm the animal.
Mosa Meat is famous for being the first company to produce a cultured meat hamburger, back in August of 2013. That burger cost $280,000. Pretty pricey, but at that time, it was done more as proof of concept. Almost seven years later, there have been many adjustments and advancements. Calder-Flynn says they project the cost of producing a hamburger will be closer to ten dollars. That’s still expensive compared to a typical supermarket hamburger at just over one dollar. She expects they’ll be able to reduce the price to that level over the next decade as further efficiency improvements are made. "Ultimately, cultured meat should be cheaper than conventional meat, given its production is more efficient."
While many types of plant-based meat tout their ability to taste like "real meat,” cultivated meat actually is real meat. So, does it taste like “real meat?” Critics say yes, it does. Under a microscope, Calder-Flynn says, Mosa Meat tissue is indistinguishable from the meat tissue that comes from the animal. It contains fat and has a similar texture. It will have a similar shelf-life and is even anticipated to freeze well.
It may also be healthier than conventional meat if you consider it will not contain any growth hormones, will be free of antibiotics, and will be made in a sterile environment, reducing the likelihood of contamination by bacteria that lead to foodborne illnesses.
Mosa Meat is still working out the kinks in their ground beef product, still perfecting the components that contribute to taste and texture. Once they complete their “recipe,” they will need to go through the EU regulatory approval process. They plan to launch first in small restaurants, then in supermarkets in the years that follow. After that, they may start producing more complex forms of cultured meat, like steak.
Memphis Meats is producing beef and poultry. They are backed by investment from some big names – Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Tyson Foods, and Cargill. Memphis Meats released the world’s first cultured meatball in 2016 and the world’s first cultured poultry in 2017. In their latest press release this past January, the company states they have raised more than $180 million in total funding. They intend to use the money to build a pilot production facility, grow their team, and launch products into the market.
According to the Alliance for Meat, Poultry, and Seafood Innovation, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a formal agreement in March 2019 stating they plan to jointly regulate food products derived from the cells of livestock and poultry. This is an imperative step on the path to getting cultured meat to consumers in America.
Is It Halal?
Since no animal is harmed in the production of cultured meat, it’s halal, right? Not exactly. Although the development of cultured meat has been going on for years, final products still have a long way to go before showing up in store aisles. As the process continues to be finalized, it's still too early for there to be an official Islamic ruling on whether or not cultured meat is permissible. Imam Mahmoud Harmoush is more inclined to say cultured meat is only halal if the cells are taken from a halal-slaughtered animal, not a living animal. A condition of determining whether or not meat is halal is in the way it was slaughtered. If the animal was not slaughtered, can that meat still be eaten? Also, part of halal slaughter is proper draining of the animal’s blood. How would that be determined in cultured meat?
Before deciding on a ruling, there will need to be extensive communication not only among Islamic scholars but also with food scientists. Dr. Mian N. Riaz, Professor in Food Diversity at Texas A&M University and IFANCA Board member, says that scientists need to provide information about the manufacturing process and culture medium composition to religious scholars so they can determine the halal status of cultured meat. If and when that happens, the process for certification can begin.
Halal certification of cultured meat would undoubtedly differ from certification of conventional meat. “Halal certifiers instead of going to butcher houses will go to manufacturing facilities where this meat is being grown and will check every step of production for this meat,” says Dr. Riaz.
Is cultured meat the meat of the future, or will it be just another food trend? Only time will tell. The benefits are plenty: better for animals, better for the planet, and better for your health. When production is scaled up, cultured meat should even be better on your wallet. Still, consideration must be made for potential adverse effects on farmers. More research is still needed to decide if and under what circumstances cultured meat will be halal, but if all the world’s meat cannot be raised and slaughtered Islamically, cultured meat appears to be a beneficial replacement for conventional meat. One thing is certain: our food habits must change in some way if we plan to continue inhabiting this earth and living healthy lives.
“Then eat of what God has provided for you [which is] lawful and good. And be grateful for the favor of God, if it is [indeed] Him that you worship.” (Quran 16:114)
Alia Shalabi is just a girl in the world. She enjoys crafts, jigsaw puzzles, and Taco Tuesdays. Alia lives in the suburbs of Chicago with her husband and three children.
Reprinted from the Summer 2020 issue of Halal Consumer© magazine with permission from the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America (IFANCA®) and Halal Consumer© magazine.
Topics: Food, Nutrition