What Is Lab-Grown Meat and When Will It Reach Supermarkets?
Cultured meat, lab-grown meat, cultivated meat. Whatever you want to call it, it’s real meat. Only, instead of killing billions of animals each year, it’s grown in a sterile lab from a few cells. That might sound like the narrative arc of your stoner cousin’s self-published sci-fi novel. But actually, it’s already in motion.
In mid-November last year, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent Upside Foods a “no questions” letter, which means it views the company’s products as safe to eat. The San Francisco start-up takes muscle, fat, and tissue cells from fertilized chicken eggs and grows them into a product that is biologically indistinguishable from the flesh of a slaughtered bird.
The company still needs US Department of Agriculture (USDA) approval before it can sell its cultivated meat domestically. But the move was a major milestone for the entire sector, which has been steadily growing for almost a decade. “It shows, ultimately, that this industry is one step closer to commercialization,” says Amy Chen, the COO of Upside Foods.
Over 100 other start-ups flush with capital are creating everything from cell-grown beef to seafood, lamb, duck, pork, and more. Countless news articles have heralded its imminent arrival for years. And optimists claim that cultivated meat holds the potential to significantly reduce the consequences of factory farming: global warming, animal suffering, foodborne illnesses, and antibiotic resistance.
Yet, as the curiosity around cultured meat proliferates, so has the skepticism. Some experts argue that cultivated meat will never fulfill its promises. Cells can only grow so fast, there’s no established ingredient supply chain, and it will be astronomically expensive to build the kind of facilities these companies will need to grow tissue at scale.
Will companies be able to produce enough affordable meat to disrupt conventional animal agriculture? Or will this fledgling industry never take flight? We asked the experts—and the answer, of course, is complicated.
How is lab-grown meat made?
To produce lab-grown meat, scientists take a sample of various cells—such as stem, muscle, and fat cells—from a live animal via a small biopsy, or from a fertilized chicken egg. “Then you select the cells that are best destined to grow well and to taste delicious,” says Chen.
Just like the animals those cells came from, they need a variety of nutrients in order to develop. Cells that make the cut are grown inside bioreactors, which look like big, stainless-steel beer fermenters, in a nutrient-dense solution of ingredients such as sugars, amino acids, and vitamins, says Patricia Bubner, the CEO and cofounder of Orbillion Bio, a US-based company making cultured beef.
The meat cells are grown in bioreactors. After a week or two, once they’ve finished growing, they’re harvested and the cells are essentially killed, says Larissa Zimberoff, a food tech reporter and the author of Technically Food: Inside Silicon Valley’s Mission to Change What We Eat. Right out of the bioreactor, they look like “pink slush.” That cell mush is then formed into an array of products.
But this isn’t new: We’ve been able to grow tissue from cells for decades, says David Block, a chemical engineer working on cultivated meat at UC Davis. “It’s happening right now in the biopharmaceutical industry, where they’re growing cells mostly to make monoclonal antibodies,” such as those used to treat some COVID-19 patients.
How is lab-grown meat different from the plant-based stuff?
On a cellular level, lab-grown meat is meat. It is beef grown from cow cells and pork grown from pig cells. Plant-based burgers, nuggets, and sausages sold by companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are made with a variety of vegan ingredients and formulated to mimic meat. One is animal tissue and the other is plant matter masquerading as animal tissue.
That means that cultivated meat does require some animal involvement. The initial biopsy necessary to harvest cells won’t harm a larger animal, but could kill a small creature, such as a shrimp. Fetal bovine serum, which Block says is made from slaughtering pregnant cows, is also used to store the harvested cells of any animal—though every company I spoke to is working on engineering an alternative solution.
What are the pros and cons of lab-grown meat?
The commercial argument for companies going head-to-head with conventional agriculture is simple: “The demand for meat is growing tremendously,” says Block, but our natural resources are finite. By 2050, when the global population is assumed to reach 10 billion (up from almost 8 billion now), meat consumption is expected to grow by another 73%.
“One way of doing that would be to expand conventional animal agriculture,” says Block. “But experts who know better than me tell me that that’s not even possible.” With cultivated meat, that one initial biopsy could, in theory, feed millions of people.
People who like meat but don’t support the meat industry can also eat the foods they love without compromising their morals. “Throughout history, the only way to eat meat has been to take the life of an animal,” says Eitan Fischer, the CEO of Mission Barns, which is cultivating pork fat to flavor and enrich plant-based meatballs, sausages, and more. “Now, for the first time, we can cultivate meat without harm.”
Animal agriculture generates about 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions annually—a figure some experts consider outdated and likely an underestimate. Cultivated meat companies believe their processes will dramatically reduce this figure, as less land and water is required to grow products in a lab than to ready animals for slaughter. “The impact is huge when we think about everything that happens right now in the world because of animal farming,” says Bubner.
Not everyone is convinced that cultivated meat will be better for the planet, though. David Humbird, the chemical engineer who wrote a report in 2020 questioning the viability of cultured meat, thinks it is debatable. The facilities required to grow meat at a global scale will use huge amounts of energy, which only becomes sustainable when using renewables—which is not currently the norm in the US. “Failing that, then it’s not clear at all that this is better,” he says. Zimberoff is on the same page. “It’s such a big question mark,” she says.
Supporters also believe that cultivating animal cells is a win for food safety: In a controlled environment, you substantially reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses such as salmonella or E. coli, says Chen. And amid mounting concerns around antimicrobial resistance in our food and livestock, it’s noteworthy that cultured meat makers are aspiring to ditch antibiotics.
What are the biggest industry challenges?
Companies have already proven they can produce animal tissue from cells. What’s still unclear: whether it’s possible to grow them at a scale that’s multiple orders of magnitude larger.
During the two years Humbird spent researching his report on the scale-up economics for cultured meat, he identified “three things that you can’t solve”: the capital costs associated with building facilities sterile enough to prevent bacterial growth; sourcing amino acids and other ingredients at an appropriate quality for cell culture; and growing cells at a high-enough density to achieve price parity with conventional meat.
Unsurprisingly, the founders and executives I spoke with, many of whom have raised huge amounts of money to throw at these problems, don’t share Humbird’s beliefs. Bubner says such critiques were accurate at the time, but did not account for recent innovations, particularly around increasing cell densities and decreasing the cost of inputs. “Will it be possible?” she says. “Absolutely, there’s no doubt.”
Though, even with the Upside’s recent go-ahead from the FDA, cultivated meat isn’t a done deal. The company’s current facility in California can produce about 50,000 pounds of cell-grown meat per year—and up to 400,000 pounds with some pricey modifications. “That is a small drop in the bucket of what we need,” Chen says. According to a 2021 report, Americans were projected to consume nearly 75 billion pounds of red meat and chicken in 2022.
Upside is now in the process of building a new production center. Scaling up the equipment is only one hurdle. Another: “How does the supply chain grow with that?” says Chen. “If you think about all those nutrients needed to feed the cells, a lot of those don’t exist in industrial scales right now, because they’ve never needed to.”
Biopharmaceutical companies have been able to effectively grow cells in 25,000-liter tanks, says Block. But for cell-cultured meat to be cost-competitive with regular animal agriculture, bioreactors would need to be 10 times as large. “Nobody’s done that,” he says. “So it’s still a question of whether it’s going to work.”
Bubner isn’t fazed. She emphasizes these challenges existed for companies making batteries and electric cars, which are commonplace these days. “You figure out a breakthrough technology such as we have, and then you scale it,” she says. “It takes time to figure out.”
How much will lab-grown meat cost?
In 2013, the world’s first cultivated meat burger was served at a news conference in London. It allegedly cost $330,000 to make. That figure has plummeted in the almost-decade since, but cell-grown proteins are yet to clock in anywhere close to the same price as conventional meats.
In Humbird’s analysis, he found that one pound of cultured meat would cost about $17 to produce at minimum. In 2018, it cost about $2 to produce a pound of beef. That final cell-grown product would likely be about 70% water, according to an in-depth report by The Counter. Meaning: “A $17 pound of ground cultivated meat at the factory quickly becomes $40 at the grocery store—or a $100 quarter-pounder at a restaurant,” reported Joe Fassler.
Still, companies are confident their products will eventually achieve price parity with traditional agriculture. As the price of conventional meat continues to increase, Chen predicts the costs associated with cultivated meat will continue to come down.
When will lab-grown meat hit the US market?
In 2020, Eat Just was the first company in the world to sell its cultured chicken to restaurants in Singapore. It’s aiming to reach price parity with conventional meat by 2030, but the products are currently sold at a premium and a loss.
This will likely be how cultivated meat rolls out in the US too. “I think it’s a sure thing that, in the near future, it will be a specialty product” in select restaurants, says Block. “And I’m very optimistic that it’ll be a commercial product in five to 10 years.”
Upside still needs approval from the USDA, which oversees the process once culture cells are harvested, before being able to sell products domestically. But Dominique Crenn has already agreed to sell the company’s cultivated chicken at her three-Michelin-star San Francisco restaurant, Atelier Crenn, once it’s available.
Mission Barns is currently “gearing up for FDA approval,” says Fischer. Whereas Orbillion is hoping to secure FDA and USDA approval before launching its ground Wagyu beef in the US in 2024.
Zimberoff isn’t quite so confident we’ll see cultivated meat on all supermarket shelves. “I think it’s going to be many, many, many years before it’s at Safeway,” she says. “Markets like Whole Foods are not going to accept this type of engineered food anytime soon, if ever.”
What does lab-grown meat taste like?
Probably the biggest question for consumers: How does lab-grown meat compare to the real deal? Zimberoff spent a lot of time trying to answer this while writing her book. Upside’s chicken “nailed the texture,” she says. It was chewy and meaty, but missing the fat. Zimberoff also tried a regular veggie burger against one from SciFi Foods, which is a mix of plant proteins and cultivated meat. “I couldn’t taste the difference,” she says. A Mission Barns hybrid sausage—which combines plant-based protein with its own cultivated pork fat—on the other hand, “was delicious.” But Wildtype’s cubed salmon tasted a “little too gel-like.”
One recent study compared the taste of conventional and cultured chicken and beef using an “electronic tongue.” It found significant differences between meat made from cells fed amino acids and animals fed plants and grains. Cultivated meat might be more sweet and bitter than conventional meat and, importantly, it’s expected to pack less of an umami punch.
Bubner says she’s up to the challenge. Her team has been working hard to replicate the exact flavor and texture of ground Wagyu beef, one of the most premium meats on the market. Likewise, Chen is feeling confident about Upside’s product. “It tastes like chicken because it is chicken,” she says.