What Is Cultured Meat and Is It Safe?
What is Cultured Meat?
"Cultured meat" is a term used for any meat product that has been produced in a bio-factory setting without slaughtering an animal. The terms "lab-grown meat" and "clean meat" are often used to describe this product. Where the term clean meat originates from the fact that the meat manufactured in this way is free from all disease, hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides.
In recent years, research into cells and cell growth have allowed scientists to create a method where muscle tissue can grow in a lab from a tiny sample. Initially, this method was (and still is) being developed for human organ production, but it opened the way for ethical meat production, where no animal needs to be harmed to supply meat. Cultured meat is also a greener choice than regular meat.
How Is Cultured Meat Made?
The first step in the creation of cultured meat is the extraction of cells from an animal. These cells need to be fast-growing cells, such as stem cells or myoblast cells. How this is done can vary, but stem cells, for example, can be obtained from bird feathers that the bird has shed.
Still, myoblast cells are most often used as they have already developed into muscle cells, unlike stem cells which would need to be pre-programmed to turn into muscle cells. Myoblast cells can be easily obtained from a biopsy of an animals muscle cells, with very little discomfort for the animal.
When the origin cells are obtained the next step is to grow those cells in a bioreactor, which supplies the cells with the nourishment and conditions they need to multiply and grow into a muscle. This step is the complicated part of this process which is still being researched and optimized.
The method most cited today is a scaffold-based-technique. In principle, this method involves the proliferation of suitable muscle cells on a scaffold in the presence of a nutritional culture medium (muscle food). The scaffold is moved and stretched periodically to mimic animal movements and eventually a lean, cultured muscle is produced that could mimic a real animal muscle.
It is theoretically possible to continue this process infinitely by extracting a few myoblast cells from each production batch. However, it is likely that the cells would, in fact, age and a fresh batch of myoblast cells would need to be introduced to the production periodically.
Finally, the muscle is harvested from the scaffold when fully grown and then usually the muscle is minced. Future development could see the creation of whole muscles as big as those on a real animal, offering choice chops with the same flavor and texture as animal meat.
Is Cultured Meat Safe?
This is a big question and it is reasonable to worry about the safety of food manufactured in this manner. It is a brand-new technology and production mistakes may happen.
What is known is that there are no short-term ill effects from eating cultured meat, other than those experienced when eating regular meat. There are however no long-term studies, simply because this form of meat production is in its infancy.
Even so, in theory, there should not be any ill side-effects at all, other than those seen with regular animal meat, since there should not be any chemical differences between the lean muscle part of cultured meat and the same parts in regular meat.
In fact, cultured meat should even be safer than regular animal meat as chances of bacterial contamination in cultured meat are next to none. At the same time, conventional animal meat can be infected by listeria, E. coli, Campylobacter and more. There is also the risk of toxoplasmosis and in rare cases Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. None of this would be a risk with cultured meat.
Cultured meat would also be free of all pesticides, tranquilizers, and de-wormers. There is, however, a need for preservatives during the production of cultured meat to protect the growing meat from yeast and fungus. Still, such preservatives would be similar, if not the same, to those used in a variety of pre-made food today.
Taking all this into account it seems self-evident that, while perhaps not 100% safe, cultured meat would at least be a safer choice than regular meat.
Is Cultured Meat as Nutritional as Conventional Animal Meat?
At the moment, cultured meat has a nutritional disadvantage over conventional meat as it lacks many of the nutrients that are found in animal meat. However, as the technology advances and costs drop, there is no reason to expect that most if not all the nutrients contained in conventional meat could also be found in cultured meat. These extra nutrients could either be added manually to the meat or even grown into the muscle as cultured meat technology advances.
The nutritional content of cultured meat can even now be controlled to a point. For example, the fat in cultured meat can be exchanged for the healthier Omega-3 fatty acids or some other fat that would be appropriate. Cultured meat could also be fortified with vitamins and minerals just as juice and cereals are today.
So, in the long run, cultured meat should at the end be even more nutritional than traditional animal meat and most likely end up as a much healthier choice when the technology has matured somewhat.
Why Should I Choose Cultured Meat?
There are numerous reasons to chose cultured meat over traditional animal meat. Here are four good ones.
First, there is the ethical question of whether humans have the right to slaughter and mistreat animals for meat. With cultured meat, this becomes a moot point as the meat source is completely free of animal cruelty and slaughter.
Second is the reduced environmental impact of cultured meat production. Cultured meat production takes considerably less land to produce the same amount of meat you would get from animals. This alone should reduce and even stop global deforestation. There is also a massive reduction in greenhouse gas emissions connected to the production and transportation of animal meat. On top of this, the water usage per kg of meat produced is tiny for cultured meat compared to conventional animal meat. So from an environmental perspective, choosing to eat cultured meat over regular meat is a no-brainer.
Thirdly is the reduction, and hopefully, elimination of antibiotics use in meat production. Traditional meat production is heavily reliant on antibiotics due to unsanitary living conditions and poor handling of livestock. This fact is quite horrible as this misuse of antibiotics is the leading cause of antibiotic-resistant bacteria appearing and should, in my opinion, be banned globally.
When this is written the last form of antibiotic known to work on all bacteria is now being used in India for chicken production. Because of this, it is simply a matter of time until a bacteria strain which is immune to all forms of antibiotics will emerge, threatening a global pandemic.
When it comes to cultured meat, the facts are simple. Cultured meat will not need any antibiotics, ever.
Finally, cultured meat might be the final solution to world hunger, since there is no limit on how much meat can be produced, opposed to traditional meat production, where access to land is a limiting factor. If you run out of space in your factory, you can just add another level on top of the one you have.
Would you Eat Cultured Meat if You Could?
- 59% Yes
- 41% No
When Will Cultured Meat be Commercially Available?
The production cost of cultured meat has continued to drop since 2013 when a 250.000 dollar hamburger was made as a publicity stunt. Today it is almost down to a point which is competitive with the cost of producing meat traditionally.
Further development should see the production price drop even further. It is estimated that lab-grown meat will be widely available in the year 2020 and with increases in mass production, it could mean that cultured meat will, in the end, be far cheaper than regular meat.
I for one am excited for this as I will not hesitate in changing my eating habits from traditional meat to cultured meat.
How Can I Help Make This Real?
By spreading the word you can help others understand that this technology is, in fact, a world-changing endeavor which will finally end humanities need to slaughter animals for meat. So please share this article wherever you think it is appropriate.
Also, when cultured meat hits the supermarkets you should not hesitate to buy it over regular meat. If the public accepts cultured meat quickly it will only speed up the shift from animal meat to cultured meat.
Finally, voicing your support will make it harder for opposing lobby groups to delay the adoption of this technology.
- Carolyn S. Mattick, Amy E. Landis, Braden R. Allenby, and Nicholas J. Genovese. Anticipatory Life Cycle Analysis of In Vitro Biomass Cultivation for Cultured Meat Production in the United States. Environ Sci Technol. 2015, 49 (19),11941–11949.
- Shruti Sharma, Sukhcharanjit Singh Thind, and Amarjeet Kaur. In vitro meat production system: why and how? J Food Sci Technol. 2015, 52(12): 7599–7607.
- Hanna L. Tuomisto and M. Joost Teixeira de Mattos. Environmental Impacts of Cultured Meat Production. Environ Sci Technol, 2011, 45 (14): 6117–6123.
- Zuhaib Fayaz Bhat and Hina Fayaz. Prospects of Cultured meat - advancing meat alternatives. J Food Sci Technol 2011, 48(2): 125–140.
Questions & Answers
The problems of the poor having enough are complex. India, for instance, has more cattle than any other country on earth. And they also have the highest number of starving people than any other country. How will this help them?
Not sure really.
The causes of poverty are complex and are usually not due to lack of resources but the distribution of those resources. Truly, there is more than enough food produced to feed everyone on this planet and more.
Now I assume that cattle produce is exported, causing increased prices in India. When cultured meat becomes more widespread and accepted I would expect the prices of cattle produce to start falling.
Now if that scenario will then result in less land getting used for cattle and it is repurposed for vegetables, grain and fruit I would expect seeing an easier access to food for the poor.
But as I say, I cannot be certain, there are just too many variables. Perhaps this will help, perhaps it won't. At least it can barely make things worse for poor and starving people in India.
© 2018 Levictus Marcus Saarith