Lab-Grown Meat: Ready, Steady… Wait

Lab-grown meat products are not yet commercially available, but multiple organisations and research groups are racing to bring product to market. How close are you from braaiing your first lab-grown steak?

It’s Friday night, and the scene is set for a braai – but this time, the meat was not harvested from an animal, but grown in a lab…

How close are we to this scenario? 

The first cultured beef burger patty was produced by Prof. Mark Post in 2013, and cost a whopping €250 000 to make (Cassiday, 2018). This is an astonishing amount; but once lab-grown meat (LGM) production is scaled up, it should be possible for it to reach the same price point as traditional meat.

LGM products are not yet commercially available, but multiple organisations and research groups are racing to bring product to market (Kateman, 2020). According to USA-based JUST Inc.,
some of their cultivated chicken products have been ready since 2018, but they are waiting for regulatory clarity before launching them (Fernabdez, 2020). In 2019, Memphis Meats
began building a pilot plant (Molteni, 2019), and Israeli group
Future Meat Technologies secured funding for theirs (Shieber, 2019). Future Meat estimates that its process, using refrigerator-sized bioreactors, will be able to generate 500kg of meat and fat in 14 days. Thus, an amount of meat equivalent to a whole cow can be grown in a month; it takes 12 to 18 months to raise a cow for slaughter (Shieber, 2019).

Based on current trends, worldwide meat consumption is expected to double by 2050 (FAO, 2019). It is widely agreed that this will not be environmentally sustainable. Lamb and beef are two of the most resource-intensive protein sources (Waite, 2019). It can take as much as 15 000 litres of fresh water and 7kg of grain feed to produce a kilogram of beef; but it’s projected that only 1.13kg of nutrients (amino acids, glucose, minerals, etc.) would be required to produce the same amount of LGM. Advocates for LGM believe that it will be friendlier to the environment, but this cannot be confirmed until large-scale production plants come online (Cassiday, 2018). Proponents of traditional meat argue that removing animals from the meat supply chain may have hidden consequences. Cattle, for example, eat plant-material waste from food-processing facilities, converting it into high-quality protein. The supply of valuable animal by-products such as leather, cosmetics, soap, personal care products, fertiliser, gelatine, vaccines and prescribed medicines (from organs and glands) may also diminish.

Whether consumers will embrace LGM or not is unknown. Studies suggest that acceptability may change over time, differ from region to region, depend on consumer socioeconomic status,  and be heavily influenced by the terms used to describe this type of meat, e.g. ‘lab-grown’ meat does not sound as attractive as ‘clean’ meat (Bryant, 2019; 2018).

In 2019 the FDA and USDA agreed to jointly oversee the production of human foods derived from the cells of livestock and poultry (FDA, 2019). Currently, no regulatory framework or quality standards exist for LGM, which may hinder its entry to market.

To conclude: although the time for LGM is creeping closer and closer, there are still a few bridges to cross, including optimising and refining cultivation processes, reducing associated costs, establishing regulatory and quality standard frameworks, ascertaining environmental impact, and determining overall consumer acceptance.

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