14 Facts About Lab-Grown Meat You Need To Know

Lab-grown meat has surged as one of the most up-and-coming food trends of the century. This novel food technology is at the threshold of innovation, and could alter the face of the livestock industry forever — but it's an outcome not yet set in stone. The Good Food Institute reported that the market for cultivated meat has the potential to generate over $500 billion in annual sales by 2050, which would be a big jump requiring the development of technologies to make the product more price competitive. One of the most significant barriers to this growth is consumer acceptance. After all, in addition to knowing the benefits of lab-grown meat, we also want to know if it's healthy and safe before we add it to our grocery carts. We've done some deep dives into everything lab-based meat to help you become a more educated consumer, and decide if petri-dish chicken will make its way onto your dinner plate anytime soon.

Lab-grown meat is derived from animals, but does not require slaughter

So what exactly is lab-grown meat — or as it's otherwise called, in-vitro meat, cultured meat, or cultivated meat? The name itself might conjure up thoughts of cows being prodded with different testing probes or images of body parts floating in formaldehyde jars. In reality, the process is much more sterile and scientific than most people would expect. 

The first step in the process is removing stem cells from a live animal. These cells, which are found in people too, are foundational building blocks that can eventually form into cells with specific functions, like cardiac or bone cells. The stem cells are then transferred to a bioreactor, which simulates an animal's body and supplies the cells with the nutrients required to live and reproduce. Eventually, these cells will form the same connective tissue, muscle, and fat that a growing animal would develop, which are then built with 3D printing technology into the desired cut of protein. This process, called scaffolding, holds the cells together in a certain configuration and provides the necessary materials to keep the cells healthy and differentiated, so that when the cut gets to your table, it resembles the same shape, texture, and flavor as traditional meat.

It's not the same as plant-based meat

Lab-grown meat is often falsely lumped into the same category as plant-based meats, like products from Impossible and Beyond Meat. Although both lab-grown and plant-based meats do not necessitate the slaughter of an animal, they are very, very different. Plant-based meats (which are in no way derived from an animal) are often made via a process called high-moisture extrusion, which helps transform plant proteins into the complex protein networks needed to create the same mouthfeel as conventional meat. Altering the extrusion's heating, cooling, and shaping allows the producer to develop plant-based meat with different textures, such as products that resemble chicken or ground beef. 

Plant-based meat is often made with soy or pea protein and may contain a lower proportion of protein than the same amount of conventionally raised meat. Lab-grown meat can have a similar makeup and protein content to that found in the animal it's derived from, so while it may provide nutritional benefits comparable to traditional meat, lab-grown meat may still not be suitable for eaters who abstain from traditional meat.

Lab-grown meat has vegans and vegetarians on the fence

While plant-based meats have captivated the hearts and stomachs of vegetarians and vegans, the same enthusiasm isn't there for lab-grown meats. Some vegans refuse outright to eat lab-grown meat because it is derived from a living animal. On one hand, lab-grown meat does not necessitate the slaughter of an animal, but it does require animal cells typically obtained through biopsies to start the process. However, other plant-based eaters argue that the development of lab-grown meat will reduce the demand for animal agriculture and the suffering of those animals in the slaughter pipeline, thus the technology should be embraced and considered vegan. The exact answer to "Can vegans eat lab-grown meat?" lies in the definition of how individuals define their own ethics and eating habits.

Meanwhile, many animal-rights groups and organizations that promote veganism have taken a stand on lab-grown meat. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), for example, has endorsed the technology, claiming on PETA Prime that it is an alternative to "continuing to rely on cruel and destructive factory farms and slaughterhouses."

Lab-grown meat may not be suitable for some religious groups

There are even more questions that swirl around lab-grown meat for individuals who adhere to specialized religious diets, such as those of the Muslim or Jewish faiths. There is debate over lab-grown meat's halal and kosher qualities, and religious figures are deliberating over whether the product could be technically classified as either. 

In early 2023, Israel's chief rabbi issued a religious ruling on cultivated meat, claiming that lab-grown meat can be defined in the same category as vegetable products. Questions remain for Jewish scholars about the kosher status of cultured meat eaten with dairy products, while lab-grown meat derived from pork could also be regarded as forbidden because of the faith. The long story short is that there is no clear answer to the religious acceptability of this product, because faith leaders who determined their religions' standards hundreds of years ago would have never considered the possibility of lab-grown meat. 

Like all foods, potential health concerns are associated with lab-grown meat

With any new type of food, people will always express potential health concerns. Meat cultured from stem cells is just one of these foods. And although lab-grown meat products have been declared safe by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration, consumers are skeptical. 

One of the primary concerns regards food safety risks, as lab-grown cells don't have an immune system like normal farm animals do. This inherently increases the likelihood of cultured cells to become contaminated in ways that could potentially make humans sick. However, the Good Food Institute reported that "successful production runs for cultivated meat test negative for pathogens such as salmonella and result in significantly lower microbial counts compared to conventional chicken." Furthermore, the lack of antibiotics in the process of growing cultured meat could potentially contribute to lowering antibiotic resistance, which constitutes a worldwide public health crisis currently linked to antibiotic use in traditional meat production, according to a Nature Food article.

Lab-grown foods can change the world's agricultural landscape

Lab-grown material isn't just restricted to meat. Scientists also use plant cells to engineer cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, food supplements, and more. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology explored the cultivation of plant cells to develop wood-like plant tissue. These researchers believe that with some fine-tuning and help from 3D printing technologies, the cells could grow into a wood table — without needing to chop down a tree.

The movement towards cellular technologies has also introduced questions about what the agricultural landscape could look like without growing food for cattle, harvesting trees for lumber, or synthesizing fertilizers to grow food. However, considering that the nation's established agriculture- and food-related industries contributed well over $1.2 trillion to the U.S. gross domestic product in 2021, according to the USDA, it's unrealistic to expect that lab-grown meat will soon surpass the economic revenue of the livestock industry and take its place as the way that all meat is produced globally. But, there is the potential to develop new innovations in the field and reduce the environmental strain that the livestock industry imposes on the planet. 

Lab-grown meat can reduce the environmental impact of livestock agriculture

Proponents of cultivated meat argue that it carries numerous environmental benefits compared to conventional agriculture — all of which are particularly relevant in the age of human-driven climate change. Companies can generate large amounts of meat with small cultures of cells, which could reduce the land and resources required to raise livestock. Potentially, according to Hudson Robotics, a half-gram of cow stem cells could produce 4.4 billion pounds of ground beef. The benefits of this could lead to other eco-friendly consequences, too — including lower demand for growing animal feed, reduced waste to manage, and less land to clear. 

The livestock industry's environmental footprint has only grown over the past few decades, and it's estimated that the sector currently contributes somewhere between 11% and 19% of global greenhouse gas emissions, as per a report published by The Breakthrough Institute. And considering that worldwide demand for animal products is increasing, there is an imperative for scientists to find new ways to source protein without accelerating climate and land-use devastation. 

Lab-grown meat also comes with a heavy environmental footprint

The contemporary lab-grown meat industry isn't exactly environmentally friendly. A preprint of research published by University of California, Davis revealed that in its current state, the environmental cost of producing cultured meat is higher than that of conventional meat. The report estimates that the global warming potential of lab-grown beef, calculated by measuring the carbon dioxide emissions per kilogram of meat produced, is between four and 25 times higher than traditionally sourced beef. 

One of the primary reasons for this is because of the purifying processes needed to grow the stem cells, which currently utilize an approach similar to that used in the pharmaceutical industry. With the potential future development of food-grade alternatives to costly and energy-intensive pharmaceutical-grade processes, then the products may become more cost-effective and environmentally friendly. The UC Davis researchers estimated that this development could potentially make cultured meat's global warming output up to 80% lower than the impacts of producing conventional beef.

Two California-based companies can sell lab-grown meat

Although lab-grown meat may seem like a scientific experiment that is way off in the future, the reality is that American companies have already started producing cultured meat. In June of 2023, the USDA gave the go-ahead for two California companies to sell lab-grown chicken

One of the companies, Good Meat, started selling its products in Singapore after 2020, and more recently launched lab-grown chicken in Washington D.C. at chef José Andrés' China Chilcano restaurant. The other company, Upside Foods, has developed a partnership with San Francisco restaurant Bar Crenn — which had removed meat dishes from its menu in 2018 because of concerns about factory farming — to start serving its lab-grown chicken. 

Neither company has yet given a date for when consumers can start to see their products in grocery stores. When these chicken products do eventually reach the refrigerator section, the USDA will label them as cell-cultured to distinguish them from conventional meat products. 

Other companies have started experimenting with varied species

Although the United States currently only permits the sale of lab-grown chicken, other companies are already poised to offer consumers an array of different cultured meat options. For example. the cultivated meat industry has expanded to lab-grown lamb with cells gleaned from Awassi sheep. The Israeli company that made the breakthrough can currently create 1,000 pounds of cultivated meat daily out of its plant in Rehovot, but is expected to ramp up production with other international facilities. Another company based in the same city, Steakholder Foods, has also made considerable progress with 3D printing technology to create cultivated pork products. 

These options have sparked the interest of many chefs, including Marcus Samuelsson, who announced he would serve lab-grown steaks through a collaboration with Aleph Farms, another Israeli company. Samuelsson is currently an investor, launch partner, and culinary consultant for the company, which aims to expand worldwide.

Technology can help companies produce lab-grown meat more efficiently

The development of lab-grown meat technologies coincided with the rise of other science technologies — which means great potential for collaboration across industries. One of those technologies is CRISPR, which stands for "Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats" and is used in genome engineering. The cultivated meat industry took a massive leap forward when it started using this technology to reduce the production cost of its products. CRISPR allows users to effectively remove, add, or edit the genetic code of an organism. The engineers at SCiFi Foods were able to edit the code of cultivated beef cells to grow more readily in a bioreactor, and the technology is expected to be used for other cultivated meat products, too. 

3D printing is also an invaluable tool for the cultivated meat industry. This printer allows producers to layer the scaffolding of the cells to determine their shape, structure, and flavor. Some printers can even use lasers to instantly cook the food as it prints.

Lab-grown meats are not necessarily genetically modified

One of the most common misconceptions about cultivated meat is that it is genetically modified. Although both lab-grown meat and genetic modification use biotechnology and laboratory practices, lab-grown meat isn't necessarily made with animal cells that have undergone genetic modification. Genetic modification would require that the DNA of these animals be altered before being cultured into stem cells. This practice isn't mandatory, but there is enormous potential to use genetic engineering in the field of cultivated meats. For example, work has been done to alter the genes of pigs to increase the resulting pork's omega-3 content.

SCiFi Foods has started using CRISPR, a gene editing — rather than gene modifying — tool to edit the sequence of beef stem cells to boost production. Companies would need to label their genetically modified cultivated meat under the same standards as other products, which will inform consumers about the use of GMO processes in producing their food. 

Lab-grown meat isn't cheap, but it's getting there

When the world's first cultivated-beef burger was served in London in 2013, it had cost some $330,000 to create it. After that, many eaters were turned off by the idea of trying a single burger that cost more than a house. But in the past decade, the market has made it possible for consumers to buy and try cultivated meat without the high price tag. The current price of that same burger has decreased to just under $10, according to the original creators of the burger at Maastricht University. Although it's more than many people would pay for a burger, this marks a major transition in the affordability of cultured meat. 

Experts note that for cultivated meat to be more appealing to consumers, it must become both scalable and cost-effective. An affordable price would be around $2.92 per pound, according to a Reuters interview with Leticia Goncalves, an executive at food-processing company Archer-Daniels-Midland, which invests in both Good Meat and Believer. In the same Reuters article, Believer's CEO estimated that their chicken products could be price-comparable to organic chicken by late 2024, which would make it a more realistic buy for budget-strapped shoppers.

Some governments are pushing back on lab-grown meat

Although a few governments have expressed interest in cultivated meat, others have opposed the new technology. In March of 2023, Italy introduced a ban on lab-produced food to protect its culinary heritage, with the ban ratified in November. The legislation comes with stiff penalties of fines and potential factory shutdowns. 

The country's health minister, Orazio Schillaci, noted that the ban was made to protect the health of Italy's people from "synthetic foods" with unknown effects, as reported by Food Ingredients First. However, the legislation has received pushback from Italians looking to try the new products or eager to join the marketplace for cultivated foods. 

Meanwhile, the Dutch made headlines after passing landmark legislation to allow pre-market taste tests of cultivated meat products before they are given European Union (EU) consent. This will enable the brands to get consumer feedback and make adjustments to their products prior to receiving EU approval for sale.