Lab to Bun? Could this be the Future for Meat?

Ruth Toporoff

Imagine eating as much meat as you like, without hurting an animal or damaging the environment? Without killing a single animal – you can barbecue a burger that has all the taste and texture you remember from the taste of meat?

Solutions are needed to supply the massive demand for protein. Solutions that do not contribute to animal welfare, that aid in food safety, and diminish the damage to the environment that is done by organizations such as CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). CAFO’s operate under stressful and crowded conditions leading to the spread of disease and food safety risks. Resolutions are needed to put an end to the horrors of factory farming. Acceptable substitute products are required. What if that solution was not a substitute but in fact was actual meat? Meat that would surpass acceptable and be exceptional, all while not harming animals, circumventing contagious diseases, and not damaging the environment.   

Unlike plant-based meats, cultured meat is a lab-grown meat alternative produced from animal cells. Cell based meat products are cell-for-cell identical to the meat from animals but factory-produced from stem cells rather than from live animals. On August 5th in 2013, Dutch scientist Mark Post, founder of Mosa Meats, presented the first cell-cultured hamburger to the world. It was produced from bovine muscle cells grown in the lab and cost €250,000 ($295,000) to make. They now project a “beef” patty to cost around €9 ($10.62). While it was not perfect, it was an anti-biotic-free, slaughter-free start to a solution to the many problems of CAFO’s abuses.

Mosa Meat’s cell-based hamburger. — Supplied by the Company

The Singapore Food Agency approved the world’s first cultivated meat product for sale in December 2020. Shortly thereafter, “Restaurant 1880” in Singapore marked the first commercial sale of approved cultivated chicken bite by California-based Eats Just.

Why Change is Needed

The billions of animals “living” in cramped, filthy, overcrowded spaces with almost no room to move their antibiotic-fueled bodies create a perfect storm for the next zoonotic disease to emerge and spread. The Pandemic made it clear how animal transmission of disease thru food consumption can bring death to humans and bring down an entire world economy. It has shown how contagious disease can spread from animals to humans with the potential to harm by way of the food system.

Legislation has been ineffective to help protect the animals or enforce proper supervision thereby allowing food processing plants to perform at dangerously low standards that increase the probability of transmission of contagious viruses. The threat of disease is not new as infectious diseases such as salmonella and E. coli exist. Recent pandemic virus threats from swine flu and bird flu almost certainly evolved on chicken and pig factory farms.

Environmental Protection Agency has failed to regulate the environmental impacts. CAFO’s produce more than 1 million tons of manure daily. This waste is stored in large open lagoons which spill over into other water bodies, contaminating and killing fish populations. Consequentially, running off into our major waterways like the Great Lakes and Gulf of Mexico which impact drinking water supplies, aquatic ecosystems, etc. CAFO’s  emit pollutants that contribute to respiratory illnesses and are one of the largest emitters of methane gas emissions in the country. CAFO’s unregulated operations diminish the quality of life in neighboring communities, and often it is those of lower socioeconomic that pay the price. Complicating efforts are the corporations that have a vested interest in keeping the food system profitable above all, and are powerful enough to influence policies, so that  their profits come ahead of people’s and animal’s interests.

But a quiet revolution is taking place in labs, where scientists are working to cultivate meat and seafood grown from cells, with the potential to reduce demand for industrial animal agriculture even further.

How the change happens

Stem cells are taken from the muscle of an animal, usually with a small biopsy under anesthesia, then they are put with nutrients, salts, pH buffers, and growth factor. Next, they are left to multiply. Finessing the technology and getting the cost to an affordable level initially happening at a slower pace, but quicker with the awareness to animal transmitted disease of the Pandemic. With increased investment, products will be ready for market sooner than was ever expected.

Memphis Meats, a Berkeley startup, was founded by cardiologist Dr. Uma Valeti and cell biologist Dr. Genovese in 2015. Memphis Meats uses myosatellite cells to grow meat products, and has produced cultured chicken nuggets and beef meatballs, as well as duck tissue. In January, they raised $161 million by fundraising in the largest funding ever completed by a cultured meat company. This attracted high-profile investors, including Bill Gates and Richard Branson. It also counts meat industry giants Cargill and Tyson Foods among its backers. Additionally,  Artemys Foods,  by biochemist Jess Krieger, who has spent the past six years working in University growing cell-based meat in a lab, Berkeley-based Mission Barns, focusing on creating animal fat, which mixed with other ingredients to make duck sausages, and BlueNalu, developing seafood from fish cells through a process called “cellular aquaculture.”

Cell-based meats is not without its challenges. Without more independent reviews of the scientific data it is hard to establish necessary regulatory framework. While the USDA and FDA reached agreement on over-seeing responsibilities of the packaging, there has been no agreement on how the cell-based products will be labeled. This is a huge issue, as perception by the public is critical. Missouri has already passed legislation banning cell-cultured meat from being called “meat.” Labeling is important, because at the DNA level, this is meat. Regulation is a bigger barrier to entering the marketplace then the technology, which is ready.

One study found that cell-based beef is projected to use 95 % fewer global greenhouse gas emissions, 98 % less land and half as much energy. And since the animal cells are extracted humanely and grown in a facility rather than within the animals themselves, cell-based meat has the potential to all but eliminate animal suffering.

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