Food News

What is lab meat, exactly?

Lab-grown meat is fast leaving the realm of science fiction and becoming reality. But as the technology evolves, will our tastes keep up?
Lab meatGetty

You’ve got to hand it to Winston Churchill. Not only did he (almost) single-handedly win World War II, he also predicted the invention of lab-grown meat. An unsung futurist, he wrote in 1931 that the world would develop the technology to divorce the production of meat from the slaughter of animals.

“We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately,” he opined in his essay “Fifty Years Hence”, pre-dating even the invention of Spam by a good six years. “The new foods will from the outset be practically indistinguishable from the natural products.”

The world is running almost four decades past Churchill’s deadline, and the artificial production of an excellent rib-eye or even a convincing chicken wing is still just a gleam in a scientist’s eye. But with the first commercial products anticipated to reach the market later this year, the era of lab-grown meat is nigh.

The first lab-grown burger patty was presented to the world in 2013. The rate of firsts being claimed has accelerated to the point that the whole movement feels like a major scientific breakthrough crossed with the fervour of a 19th-century gold rush.

In late 2017, Just, a San Francisco-based company, released a video of a group of people eating chicken nuggets as Ian, the chicken whose feather yielded the stem cells, strutted about unconcernedly. In September last year, Silicon Valley start-up New Age Meats invited a group of journalists to taste the world’s first cultured pork sausage containing both fat and muscle cells, which was hailed as a breakthrough in recreating the taste of real meat. In December, Israeli company Aleph Farms débuted the first lab-grown steak (don’t get too excited: while the texture was reportedly similar to conventional meat, the taste needed some improving).

Cellular meat is the ultimate product for an age of disruption. The Uber of the food world, it promises to vastly reduce the greenhouse-gas emissions associated with meat production, halt or reverse the deforestation of grazing land, and eliminate the need for antibiotics in meat production. The upshot is that the world’s population will have a reliable protein source that’s far less reliant on feed, land and water – and doesn’t involve the killing of animals.

“This is a big part of the future of food,” says Thomas King, CEO of Food Frontier, an Australian not-for-profit pushing innovation in cell-based and plant-based meat across the Asia-Pacific region. “We now have the ability to grow and harvest cells rather than whole animals. It’s the ultimate answer to the current unsustainable methods of meat production.”

In the way of all revolutions, the language is still sorting itself out. Cultured meat, artificial meat and in-vitro meat all have currency. The dominant term is “cell-based”, a reference to the stem-cell technology that sees cells taken from a small biopsy of a live animal and fed on plant material in a lab. The popular alternative term “clean meat” has received pushback from traditional agriculture, although lab proponents point out that their product is free from illnesses such as salmonella that can contaminate meat on the slaughterhouse floor.

Bill Gates has invested heavily in lab-grown meat. So has Richard Branson. Tellingly, traditional agricultural companies including Cargill and Tyson Foods are also sinking their money into the area.

Meat & Livestock Australia, which represents around 50,000 livestock producers, is circumspect about this brave new world. MLA has been monitoring consumer reactions to understand whether the product promises to be an addition to, or a substitute for, conventionally farmed meat.

US studies show that consumers are willing to try lab-based meat but are not keen to completely replace farmed meat with synthetic alternatives.

“Consumers continue to have a strong desire for traditional proteins,” says Lisa Sharp, MLA chief marketing and communications officer. “They are voicing concerns about eating Frankenfoods. Consumers want natural, unadulterated food.”

Price is another major barrier for the moment. In the US, ground beef costs around $7 a kilogram compared with around $5291 for lab-grown meat. Prohibitively expensive, yes, but perspective is everything: the first lab-grown burger cost $400,000 to produce.

The popularity of plant-based meat alternatives such as the Beyond Burger, which “bleeds” when cut, and Funky Fields mince – now on your local supermarket shelf – shows the hunger for substitutes. But it may be a conceptual leap to assume Australia’s growing tribe of vegetarians and vegans will embrace the artificial product.

“Vegans are an interesting bunch,” says Shannon Martinez, co-owner and chef of Melbourne vegan restaurant Smith & Daughters, whose process for making “chicken” nuggets involves tofu, wheat protein, soy and a laborious amount of time. “The fact that they’re taking cells from animals might be enough to make them reject it. I’m all for it but I’m going to have to really talk to our customers if it’s going to fly.”

The timeline for being able to sit down to an evening meal of spag bol made with motherless mince is not yet certain. Just, the creators of those chicken nuggets, say they will be on the market by year’s end. Others are not so sure. More than 25 companies globally are pursuing the commercial applications of cell-based meat, with three of those in Australia. The way governments respond will play its part, says King. “The timeline depends on key decisions. It comes down to which governments want to take the opportunity to approach it.”

Sooner or later, regulators will be faced with multiple challenges: can animal flesh produced in a lab actually be called meat? What happens when the nutrient profile is engineered with extra omega-3 fatty acids and fewer saturated fats? And what about lab-grown milk, eggs, collagen and gelatine?

Diners, prepare to meet thy nuggets. But as for that steak: “It’s obviously going to be a greater challenge than creating burgers and sausages,” says King. “We’ll get there one day.”

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