Producing Sustainable Cultivated Meat – Is There More To It Than ‘Meats’ The Eye?
There has been much media coverage regarding the FDA’s recent decision to approve the first US company, Upside Foods, to grow cell-cultured chicken. Although there are still several hurdles before the US meat is approved for sale, this decision by a leading food regulator to declare the meat product as safe to eat, has been greeted as a major milestone for the cultivated food industry.
Upside Foods joins dozens of other food companies around the world who have been in a race to pioneer the emerging cultivated meat industry with their products. These include Eat Just’s GOOD Meat cultivated chicken brand, which was the first to market globally in December 2020 with the sale of its chicken nuggets at a restaurant in Singapore. Recently, its product became available for home delivery in Singapore, and it launched a new version at the COP27 global climate summit.
More locally, in the UK, Ivy Farm announced in August that it has opened a new pilot production plant to produce over 6,000 lbs (2.8 tonnes) of cultivated meat per year for the global market.
It’s therefore no longer a case of cultivated meat being science fiction, but rather it’s become science fact. So it would seem that it’s only a matter of time before it becomes available on a global scale, as more and more countries grant regulatory approval to sell it.
The race to develop, produce and sell cultivated meat products commercially can be traced as far back as 2013, when the first lab-grown burger was created by a team in the Netherlands, followed by a steak grown in Israel in 2018. In the UK, British scientists at the University of Bath have been experimenting with growing animal cells on blades of grass to produce bacon since 2019.
Today, hundreds of companies and academic laboratories worldwide are conducting research to establish a new paradigm for manufacturing cultivated meat products at industrial scales.
At NutriCalc we think the implications for cultivated meat becoming a global commodity raises some important questions.
Let’s start by asking what cultivated meat actually is?
The Good Food Institute (GFI), a non-profit think tank working to make the global food system better for the planet, people and animals, define it as: “Meat produced directly from cells. The process of cultivating meat uses the basic elements needed to build muscle and fat and enables the same biological process that happens inside an animal. Cultivated meat is identical to conventional meat at the cellular level.”
What are the benefits of it?
It’s all about sustainability. A study by scientists in Finland has found that dining on ‘greener’ foods such as lab-grown meat or ground-up insects could lead to “big savings in carbon emissions and water, as well as freeing up land for nature”, and this could “reduce pressures on the planet by 80% with such foods, compared with the typical European diet.” They also claim it provides a more complete range of essential nutrients than living on a purely vegetarian or vegan diet.
In addition, according to the GFI, “growing meat directly is vastly more efficient. It also avoids the risk of faecal contamination and does not require many animals to live in close confinement. This, in turn, will drastically reduce the need for antibiotics in meat production as well as the risk of zoonotic pandemics.”
Plus of course, there is the ethical argument against killing animals just for humans to eat.
To quote Chemical Engineer, Dr Marianne Ellis at the University of Bath, lab-grown meat therefore provides “an alternative protein source to feed the world”.
At first glance then, there would seem to be significant environmental and ethical reasons for the world population switching to cultivated meat from live animal meat.
However, we think that more research and debate is needed in order to present a truly balanced picture.
For example, are the nutrition benefits really the same as eating high quality live animal meats?
It is claimed that cultivated meat is made of the same cell types arranged in the same or similar structure as animal tissues, thus replicating the sensory and nutritional profiles of conventional meat.
However, is the quality of cultivated meat really comparable with live animal meat, as the feed given to an animal (as well as the living conditions), directly affects the quality and nutrient composition of the meat. For example, grass fed animals tend to produce higher quality meat than corn or grain fed animals, which results in their meat having higher levels of good quality fats and higher concentrations of many important vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. These are then passed onto humans when they ingest the meat and can have a positive impact on our human gut health.
Also, with cultivated meat being only at its very earliest stages of development and production, is it just too soon to say with any certainty that there are no long-term side effects to eating genetically engineered meat? Maybe more time and research is needed before we rush to make these products available for sale.
If the main argument for cultivated meat as that it provides a sustainable and ethical alternative to farming live animals, aren’t we already making huge strides to provide consumers with a diverse choice of ‘meat-substitute’ plant-based products which are getting closer and closer in taste and texture to the animal products they try to replicate?
You might point to plant-based diets not providing some essential nutrients, such as vitamin B12, creatine, vitamin D3 and omega-3 fatty acids, and iron. However, we can still derive these nutrients from vitamin supplements in order to avoid nutrient deficiencies.
Also, whilst food producers and scientists claim that cultivated meat is vastly more efficient to produce on an industrial scale than the resources needed for farming live animals, there will still be land, materials and energy requirements associated with production plants, so how do these actually compare in terms of resources?
There are also claims that ‘some’ cultivated meat products may contain an animal by-product known as fetal bovine serum (FBS), which is obtained in slaughterhouses by collecting blood from the unborn calves of pregnant cows after they’re killed. If this is truly the case, then how can food producers and scientists claim that cultivated meat is ethically okay when in at least some cases, it’s still dependent on the slaughter of animals to produce a component used in the production process?
Of course, at this very early stage of development, maybe it’s too early to predict how well cultivated meat will be received by consumers. If, in recent years, the trend has been to try and move away from more ‘processed foods’, back to a cleaner diet of raw ingredients, will cultivated meat be viewed with some scepticism as it’s produced in a factory and has been genetically engineered?
It’s certainly food for thought and only time will tell if cultivated meat becomes a viable product category and ingredient in global food production.