Lab Grown Meat: A Critical Overview

A meat dish at an upscale restaurant. Photo via Pexels

On June 21, the USDA granted permission to Upside Foods and Good Meat to sell lab grown meat commercially at upscale restaurants. Over the past couple of decades lab grown meat has received a lot of attention and has attracted major investors such as Bill Gates and Tyson. But what is lab grown meat exactly? 

Lab grown meat is meat alternative grown using animal cells, amino acids, and nutrients in massive bioreactors. With a quick Google search, this meat alternative claims it can solve emissions related to the beef cattle industry, remove health risks associated with meat such as e. coli and salmonella, and solve animal exploitation concerns raised by animal rights activists. However, current research suggests that it is not exactly the miracle product many hope it is. 

According to an article by the University of California-Davis, there are many factors not considered in the environmental assessments of lab grown meat, such as the electricity usage needed to run industrial-size labs, routine product losses associated with the meat industry, and the resource-heavy ingredients in lab grown meat. The researchers in this article estimated that the global warming potential and emissions of lab grown meat would actually be between 25% to 400% greater than retail beef. 

Additionally, production of lab grown meat is very small scale right now, so emission estimates are not scaled to market production. This makes the emissions seem artificially less than commercial livestock production. 

An alleged benefit of lab grown meat is the significantly decreased risk of bacterial contamination associated with meat production such as e. coli and salmonella. As far as current research stands this is true due to the sterile environment lab grown meat is grown in. 

However, there are other health concerns being speculated. According to a review by Sghaier Chriki and Jean-François Hocquette, hormone production and growth factors in lab grown meat are not as controlled as in an animal’s body. They speculate that cell dysregulation is likely to occur, like in cancerous cells, and that the health impacts on the human body are unknown. 

Moreover, major nutritional composition such as iron and micronutrients cannot be controlled in lab grown meat currently. If this is not resolved, it could result in a food product with very little nutritional content. 

Another major claim supporting lab grown meat is that it will eliminate or greatly reduce animal exploitation. This is not entirely true as livestock will still need to be maintained to take muscle and cell samples from to be able to grow lab meat.  

Also, the traditional and main method of providing nutrients and growth factors to lab grown meat is fetal bovine serum, which is a blood product taken from fetal cows.  

According to Xcaret Nuñez in an article published on NPR, “The current alternative (to fetal bovine serum) is to generate each growth factor individually using recombinant protein production… However, due to the added complexity of this process, it is particularly expensive.” 

Moreover, animal exploitation does not appear to be a mainstream concern for many consumers. Separate surveys by the Horticulture Development Board and John Hopkins School of Public Health indicate that more consumers are concerned with animal welfare on the farm prior to slaughtering rather than stopping or reducing meat consumption entirely. Also, the primary reason people reduce or stop meat consumption is health reasons. 

Despite some shaky claims, there is a lesser-known benefit to developing lab grown meat. Currently many pharmaceutical processes are being used to produce lab grown meat. Due to the popularity of the topic of lab grown meat, there is a push to make these processes cheaper and more efficient. This has the potential to also reduce the cost and resources needed for various pharmaceutical products. 

There’s a lot of good and bad things about lab grown meat, but it’s important to be critical about the information being spread around the most. Be sure to do thorough research before putting something new in your body. 

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