Getting To Know Cultured Meat
Our world’s growing population presents entirely new challenges about how we produce and consume food. With the global population expected to surpass 9 billion by 2050, our food systems — already pushed to precarity due to climate change — will face further strain. Animal agriculture, in particular, is incredibly unsustainable and taxing on the environment.
Cellular agriculture, however, is an emerging field that is gaining popularity and could displace traditional means of producing meat, dairy, and other animal-based products. Over the past few years, dozens of companies such as Aleph Farms and BlueNala have begun researching ways to grow proteins from animal cells, and many celebrities have even expressed their support as well.
As an emerging technology, many researchers are realizing the potential benefits that cultured meat can have in combatting nutrition-related diseases, foodborne illnesses, climate change, and farmed animal slaughter. However, from an advocacy perspective, there are differing opinions and concerns. While some advocates argue that cultured meat can serve as a transitional technology towards more animal-friendly food systems, others argue that it justifies using animals for food, and competes against other solutions, like plant-based foods. Because cultured meat relies on cell samples from farmed animals and dead calves, it’s not vegetarian or vegan, either. Some advocates believe we should be tackling the root causes of animal exploitation, rather than creating food systems that work around it. It’s important to note that the debate surrounding cultured meat is complex, as organizations and advocates have different (and sometimes conflicting) philosophies and priorities for reducing animal suffering.
In the following sections, we examine cultured meat from three distinct perspectives. First, we explore the implications of cultured meat products on consumer choices, considering factors such as acceptance and perception. Then, we delve into the regulatory landscape and health and safety approval processes that govern the introduction of cultured meat into the market, addressing potential challenges and benefits. Lastly, we discuss effective strategies for advocates to approach the topic of cultured meat, navigating the complexities of animal welfare, environmental impact, and ethical considerations while engaging in constructive dialogues with diverse stakeholders. By exploring these perspectives, we aim to shed light on cultured meat and its potential as a solution to food system strains.
What People Want To Eat
Although cultured meat has gained a lot of attention as a potential alternative to farmed meat, it will likely face many challenges before becoming a mainstream product. Ensuring the public knows about the safety, nutrition, and health of cultured meat products will be crucial for its success.
A recent study reveals a growing concern among consumers about where their food comes from. According to the study, about 48% of young people in the U.S. consider animal welfare an important factor in deciding to buy foods/beverages. Among Gen Z and Millenials, nearly three-quarters believe their generation is “more concerned about the environmental impact of food choices than other generations,” and are also more likely to purchase plant-based and carbon-neutral food products. Half of the respondents also cited foodborne diseases as the “most important food safety issue today.”
Another concern about cultured meat is its use of hormones and growth factors. Growing cultured meat involves transforming stem cells into fat and muscles. To transform into muscles and fatty layers, though, they need nearby hormones to instruct them. It’s important not to dismiss people’s concerns over the use of hormones in food products, because among young respondents, 47% cite knowing whether a food is bioengineered or contains bioengineered ingredients as an important factor in their decision to buy it. Over half of U.S. adults are unfamiliar with or know very little about bioengineered foods. At the same time, over 30% try to limit or avoid them.
Fear of bioengineered foods is largely due to misinformation from both social media and food journalists. Some critics have compared growing cultured meat to cancer cells, even though cultured meats don’t use cancerous cells. Because cultured products are subject to food and safety regulations by the FDA and USDA, they’re also extensively researched and tested for consumer safety before they can be sold. One common argument against cultured meat references a protein called soy leghemoglobin (SLH) that is used in plant-based meats. It argues that SLH causes health issues, though a 2018 study using over 100 times the average daily intake of SLH reported no health issues related to it.
Even so, it’s important to recognize the influence that social media and news outlets have on animal-free alternative foods. As more research and studies are conducted, the benefits of these products may become clearer. Even then, dispelling myths and skepticism surrounding newer food products will be key to building and maintaining trust and support among the general public.
Food Health And Safety
Every year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 48 million people are infected by foodborne diseases, and 3,000 die from them. Since January 2023, the FDA has recalled more than 30 products because of contamination by bacteria and fungal diseases.
Almost all farmed animals are raised in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). In CAFOs, thousands of animals are forced to live in cramped spaces, making them the perfect breeding grounds for bacteria like E. coli and salmonella. The high-stress environment also tends to result in higher rates of injuries and diseases among farmed animals, making disease outbreaks incredibly common. As much as 80% of all antibiotics used every year go into animal agriculture, contributing to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and fungi (colloquially known as superbugs). Accidents during animal slaughter (like ruptured intestines) can also allow billions of bacteria to contaminate animal products—and through contact with other ingredients, can also affect non-animal products through cross-contamination.
Comparatively, cultured meat is grown in controlled environments where bacteria like E. coli and salmonella can be easily detected and removed. Because the samples can be easily monitored and tested, fewer antibiotics are needed to produce meat and fat. Of course, because the muscle and fat are grown from cell samples, there is also no need to confine animals to intense and stressful farms.
As of 2019, the FDA and USDA announced a joint agreement to oversee the production and labeling of all cultured meat products. Although cultured meats are not yet available for sale, the FDA has been testing cultured meat products since 2016, and two companies have been given the green light by the FDA to produce cultured meat products. For the FDA to approve of a food product, companies must:
- Comply with U.S. and state laws
- Keep clear records of where ingredients come from and where finished products are delivered
- Meet health and safety standards during production and delivery (meaning, among other things, that cultured meats can’t contain any unwanted allergens or produce toxins in our bodies)
One of the main concerns about cultured meat is its long-term effects on our health, but extensive testing, research, and food inspections reveal that cultured meats are about as safe as any other supermarket item. Additionally, because the fat in cultured meats can be directly controlled, it can be grown to be nearly identical to regular meat.
Regulating Cultured Meat
Aside from the FDA’s regulations, the USDA’s policy is that cultured meat should be labeled as “cultivated meat” for better transparency to customers. Although cultured meats aren’t yet being sold, some U.S. states are already pushing for laws that prevent cultured meats from being labeled as “meat.” Even today, plant-based milk and dairy products continue to face legal battles over whether they can use the term “milk,” with critics arguing that “milk” refers to dairy-based products that hold a different nutritional content than plant-based alternatives. While the debate has largely been settled with the FDA allowing plant-based alternatives to use the term “milk,” it’s likely that cultured meat will face a similar problem until official labeling policies are passed. Therefore, it’s important to make sure the process of growing cultured meat is as clear as possible to consumers. Building trust among consumers will not only help develop a positive image of cultured foods, but also help make them a success.
It’s worth noting that cultured meats are neither vegetarian nor vegan. The starting sample of muscle and fat cells comes from live animals, and the best culture mediums tend to contain fetal bovine serum (FBS), which is harvested from dead calves. This means that, with current technology, cultured meat can’t completely replace farmed animals. One of the main reasons that cultured meat hasn’t entered the market yet is because FBS is expensive. The serum contains a special protein called albumin, and a single liter of it can cost between $46-$74, making the serum account for anywhere between 30–80% of total production costs. Factoring in the cost of water, electricity, transportation, and maintenance, some estimates calculate that growing one kilogram of cultured meat commercially will cost at least $63 (about $28.57/lb).
Luckily, many researchers are looking for ways to produce alternatives to FBS, which will make the whole process much cheaper — and less reliant on animals. Although it’ll be a while before FBS is replaced, once an alternative is found, cultured meats may become a lot more affordable and much more ethical to produce.
Advocating For Cultured Meat
When discussing cultured meat with the general public, it’s important to recognize that, although cultured meat isn’t entirely animal-free, it still greatly reduces animal suffering. Because only a few animals are needed to source the cells for cultured meats, we could potentially save many of the 10 billion animals slaughtered in the U.S. every year. This is undoubtedly a positive outcome that animal advocates would welcome.
It may also help to explain how the process of growing meat is similar to fermenting yogurt or beer. In fact, cell-cultured products have been around since 1990. Many cheeses are made using cell-cultured rennet, a protein used to curdle milk. Cultured meat is just another way of making a different type of protein.
Although culturing stem cells into meat requires the use of hormones, framing the discussion as a comparison of cultured meat to traditionally farmed meat from animals can be useful. Farmers use hormones and many other chemical additives in animals. Growth hormones, antibiotics, artificial colorings, and preservatives are also used on top of regular hormones in livestock feeding operations. At a glance, cultured meats could even be framed as less “processed” than traditional meat. Still, talking about the “naturalness” of meat tends to disgust people. When discussing cultured meats, it may be best to steer clear of conversations about naturalness entirely, and to only bring it up if they do.
Ultimately, cultured meat is one of the many “solutions” available to animal advocates when trying to move people away from the consumption of conventionally produced meat. Although producing cultured meat is expensive, the process used to grow cultured meat is consistently being refined, and may possibly make it a viable alternative in the near future. Although these processes still rely on animal-based ingredients, cultured meats could act as a gateway to introducing people to precision fermented foods, another technology used to make things like non-animal eggs and dairy products.
Shaping the Future of Cultured Meat
As animal advocates, we need to become comfortable with these discussions. Cultured meat is on the horizon, and it’s only a matter of time before these products begin appearing on supermarket shelves and restaurant menus. For those who aren’t quite ready to make the leap from traditional proteins to plant-based alternatives, cultured meats may bridge the gap and help them become more comfortable with animal and environmentally friendly choices. Fostering a positive narrative around cultured meat can improve public perception and acceptance, as well as help accelerate development.
Additionally, as cultured meat enters the market, there will likely be complex discussions about its regulatory framework, labeling, and public perception. Animal advocates can actively participate in these conversations to ensure that cultured meat products adhere to the highest ethical and animal welfare standards. By engaging in these discussions early on, advocates can shape the industry in a way that aligns with their values and ensure that the technology benefits both animals and consumers.
It is important for us to approach the topic of cultured meat with open-mindedness and a willingness to adapt different messaging and strategies. While some advocates may have reservations about the use of animal cells for meat production, recognizing the potential for significant animal welfare gains through the widespread adoption of cultured meat can be a unifying force among various factions within the animal advocacy movement.