inspecting meat in lab

What You Need to Know About Lab-Grown Meat

Lab-grown meat

Credit: AndreyPopov

Humans have been eating meat for over a million years, but people have recently become more conscious about their meat intake because of climate change, animal treatment and more. Vegetarian and vegan products are now more mainstream, leading to a rise in these diets.

What if you were able to have meat from an animal without killing the creature? Scientists have been working on what may be the next big thing in the food industry. Lab-grown meat is rising in popularity and you could see it on grocery store shelves in the next few years.

What Is Lab-Grown Meat?

As the name suggests, this innovation is meat grown in a lab. You create it by harvesting cells from a living animal. Then you cultivate the cells and allow them to grow outside the body. These cells come from an animal’s muscles. Unfortunately, the collect process may cause some pain. Researchers do give anesthesia to the animal to mitigate it. Some people prefer this process because it’s better for the animal than ending up at a slaughterhouse.

To mimic the meat at the grocery store, the lab-grown meat is molded into unique shapes. The objective of the meat alternative is to imitate the same taste of chicken, steak, fish and other meat without killing the animal. Once the scientists harvest the cells, they can start generating the meat on a larger scale.

What’s the History of Cultured Meat?

Lab-grown or cultured meat is an idea people have had for more than a century. Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill theorized about lab-grown meat in his book, “Thoughts and Adventures”. In the book, Churchill says it’s absurd to grow a whole chicken only for the breast and wing and humans should grow these parts individually in a suitable medium.

Willem van Eelen was integral in developing the idea for lab-grown meat. He was a prisoner during World War II and suffered from starvation. The Dutch researcher developed the concept of cultured meat based on cell lines, which scientists had formed around the same time. The following 50 years saw innovations like cultivating muscle fibers and patents for tissue-engineered meat.

In 2001, van Eelen, Wiete Westerhof and Willem van Kooten, filed a patent for producing lab-grown meat. Their system included collagen and muscle cells placed in a nutritious solution. This innovation inspired NASA to grow meat for its astronauts. Instead of bringing meat on the shuttle, the astronauts could grow it during missions.

Then in 2013, Mark Post — a researcher from Maastricht University in the Netherlands — created the world’s first cultured hamburger patty. This breakthrough was significant because scientists tested the burger live on British TV. The panel eating the burger said Post’s creation was flavorful and tasted close to meat, especially with its consistency. This burger helped put the idea of lab-grown meat into the mainstream.

In late 2020, Singapore became the first country to permit cultured meat for commercial sale. These lab-grown foods are getting closer to grocery store shelves in the United States, Europe and other areas. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently said cultured meat is safe for human consumption and the European Union (EU) has listened to calls for lab-grown meat and could decide soon on regulatory practices.

What Are the Advantages of Lab-Grown Meat?

Lab-grown meat could be one of the most significant innovations of the modern era. The world’s population has crossed the eight billion mark, so the demand for food has only increased. Unfortunately, the pandemic and supply chain disruptions have strained workers and factories worldwide. Poverty and unemployment have driven food insecurity, so cultured meat could answer the problems.

Another way cultured meat can have impact is in the treatment of animals. Some people abstain from meat because they don’t like how companies treat livestock, chickens, fish and more. Lab-grown meat could contribute to better practices with animals. Farmers and businesses will face less strain and can focus on improving conditions.

For example, they could invest in cooler buildings for their livestock. Newborn pigs need hot temperatures around 95° Fahrenheit but lower temperatures as they age. Overheating causes problems with a pig’s blood flow and induces heat stress. The investment in lab-grown meat will likely improve animal welfare, especially amid global warming.

Climate change has become more noticeable in recent years with global warming and one of the driving factors is meat consumption. Red meat especially has been a problem.

Animals like cows, goats and sheep emit methane — a greenhouse gas responsible for trapping heat in Earth’s atmosphere. Cultured meat’s emissions are much lower than red meat, which is responsible for 65% of global livestock emissions. Lab-grown meat also uses significantly less land and water than traditional livestock, as well.

Does Lab-Grown Meat Have Risks?

Cultured meat can positively impact society as the world endures global warming, a pandemic, supply chain disruptions and more. However, there are risks involved with the innovation. It has started to enter the mainstream, but questions remain about the product, explaining why regulators in the EU have held off giving the green light.

One of the primary drawbacks of lab-grown meat is contamination. The process of growing meat requires using cell lines, but cells aren’t as strong as the animals themselves regarding contamination. Animals have an immune system to protect them from diseases — the cells don’t have the same luxury. Lab-grown meat is more susceptible to bacteria and pathogens.

Another concern some experts have is how companies create oncogenic cells. Lab-grown meat developers use cell lines to choose whether to activate particular proteins to suppress tumors. The cultured meat process could involve developing cancer cells in these products. The growth factors would adversely affect humans if they entered the bloodstream.

Will Cultured Meat Enter the Mainstream?

In the 21st century, people have started to care more about the planet and their bodies. They’re finding ways to eat better while lowering their carbon footprint. For example, Paul McCartney formed a campaign called Meat Free Monday.

Some people have stopped eating meat entirely because of the unethical treatment of animals. One solution that could appease animal rights activists and help the planet is lab-grown meat. This innovation has a much lower carbon footprint and doesn’t require animals to die. The FDA has said cultured meat is safe, so the next few years will be a significant test to see if it also gets consumers’ approval.

We’d also like to hear what you think about lab-grown meat? Is it something you’d even consider? Why or why not?

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