Move over plant biotechnology, hello to tech-savvy meat products.
Cell-based meat (also known as fake meat, clean meat, cell-cultured meat…see below) is starting to go mainstream. Its popularity stems mostly from the things that make traditional meat unappetizing for some people–slaughter of animals and the environmental cost. But the idea of meat grown in a laboratory isn’t appetizing to many. So, what is it? How could it impact agriculture? And what’s all the fuss?
I dive into some of the hot issues with this new product.
What is it?
In a word, meat that is grown in a lab. Muscle stem cells are taken from a live animal. Those cells are then cultured in a favorable environment so they multiple into more cells. Eventually, with some fancy science, those cells will create burger patties. (Eater has a decent and more detailed explanation here.)
The price for each burger patty is currently about $11 each, which is still a bit expensive. But that’s a far cry from the $325,000 one patty cost when the method of growing meat in a lab was discovered. And the price is expected to drop as the technology advances and becomes more common.
As for the meat itself, some say it tastes a bit bland. Others have no complaints about it. Yours truly hasn’t tried it yet, so I’ll reserve judgment.
What’s in a name?
In short, everything.
Proponents of cell-based meat obviously want the name to reflect something positive, instead of adopting a name that scares consumers. “Clean” meat stuck early on. But many in the cell-based meat business would prefer that their product simply be labeled as “meat.”
As you might expect, animal producers would rather use a term that disparages the product…at least a little bit. The terms “fake” meat or “lab-grown” meat have cropped up. And the industry doesn’t seem willing to accept that this product should just be labeled as meat, because it obviously leaves out the origins of the product.
For now, at least, the terms “cell-based” and “cell-cultured” seem to be acceptable to both groups. It isn’t necessarily a negative term, and it also differentiates it from traditional meat products. Although, if we’re being technical, all meat is cell based. I think it’s important that the term doesn’t disparage the product, but also allows consumers to understand what they’re buying. Perhaps there isn’t a perfect answer, but the implications are obviously important to both sides of the debate.
Who regulates it?
The fight over the regulatory framework for cell-based meat is almost as controversial as what it should be called. The USDA traditionally has regulatory oversight of all meat products. But the FDA also wanted a piece of this action. Despite the natural tension, USDA’s Sonny Perdue and FDA’s Scott Gottlieb have worked closely together on these issues. Early on both USDA and FDA held joint summits to discuss relevant topics with industry stakeholders. The unlikely pair has used this moment to work together in an atmosphere that seemed primed to pit them against each other.
For now, USDA and FDA have agreed to split regulatory oversight on cell-based meat. The FDA will supervise product cultivation, which includes cell collection, cell banks, and cell growth and differentiation. On the other hand, USDA will oversee production and labeling of the food products. The plan makes some sense. The FDA will handle the process up to the point of it actually becoming ready-for-the-market meat. At which point the USDA will take over and handle the product just like all the other meat.
But the discussion might not be over. Some lawmakers want to see the USDA handle the entire process. And some language could be added to the farm bill to make that a reality. The move might be somewhat controversial though, so there’s a distinct possibility the precarious position of the farm bill precludes it.
What’s the fuss?
The benefits of cell-based meat seem almost obvious: there are no animals used to produce it (except the original animal used for the cells). That means fewer animals have to be raised to meet meat demands, which means less feed, less manure, and less land use. So some environmental benefits. And no animals have to be slaughtered, which appeals to vegans and vegetarians. It all but eliminates concerns about animal welfare.
But there is also a detriment to the millions of animal farmers across the country that rely on animal meat for their livelihood. If cell-based meat takes over, what happens to those families? And let’s not forget that those animals are part of a larger agricultural-production system. Farmers grow feed for all of those animals. And the manure from those animals is used to grow our crops. So cell-based meat has the potential to majorly disrupt modern agriculture.
Cell-based meat isn’t going away any time soon. It will be interesting to see if consumers buy into it. And that will have major implications for how much it changes things.