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Cell-Based Meat: Some Considerations by Christina Badaracco, MPH, RD

Is it healthy for humans to eat food made in bioreactors and Petri dishes? In late 2022, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concluded that human food made from cultured animal cells is safe. In June 2023, the USDA issued grants of inspection to two companies, which allowed two restaurants to include cell-cultivated meat on their menus. For the past few decades, consumers have wondered about the comparative human health and environmental effects of consuming alternative meat products. The launch of plant-based Beyond Meat in 2012 intensified interest in the topic. Since then, the production and consumption of alternative meats have increased rapidly across the country. However, the evidence for its relative merits is mixed, as we shared in this article. And questions about such benefits will only increase with the launch of cell-cultivated meat. So how do these new meat products compare—and should consumers consider trying them?


What is cell-cultivated meat?

Cell-cultivated meat—also known as cell-based, cultured, clean or lab-grown meat—is a product grown from animal cells in a controlled environment. It is distinct from plant-based meats, which are vegan by definition, because it’s produced from animal cells. It’s expected that meat eaters keen to reduce their environmental impact will be the first and primary consumers, rather than vegans who have espoused alternative meat products for decades. Cell-based meat has the same appearance, taste and texture as real meat, so it is not a far stretch for meat eaters to incorporate it into their diets. While most growth media initially contained fetal bovine serum (from a living cow fetus’ blood, meaning they were not vegan), a few companies have recently developed meats produced with synthetic alternatives, and they can be considered vegetarian.


While a handful of restaurants have incorporated cell-cultivated meat into their menus, no food made from cultured animal cells is yet available for retail sale in the US. Manufacturers are currently working on scaling their processes to produce enough meat at a competitive price (as well as completing the necessary step of receiving FDA and USDA approval). The world’s first tasting of cell-based meat was a hamburger presented in London in 2013 that cost $330,000 to produce. Since then, enormous amounts of time and dollars invested in research have resulted in new processes and materials to help bring down this marginal cost. Indeed, as of 2021, 107 cell-based meat and seafood companies worldwide had raised $1.38 billion (from various wealthy individuals, meat industry partners and venture capital firms) for their research and development.


Notably, while sales of plant-based meat had been increasing in recent years—and even into the COVID-19 pandemic—sales started to slow by late 2022. The question, therefore, is what the demand will be by the time cell-based meat launches and how sustainable it will be over time.


How is cell-cultivated meat produced?

The production process begins with extracting stem cells from an animal. Next, these cells are bathed in a nutrient-rich medium and then grown in a bioreactor. This cell proliferation yields unstructured meat cells; to create a structured piece of meat (such as steak or a chicken thigh), the cells must be built upon a scaffold. Scaffolding used in this process is edible and made of materials such as mushroom fiber, collagen and soy protein. The entire process can take two to eight weeks, depending on the steps needed for the particular end product. These steps are shown in the figure below.

Note: the bioreactor designs and other details of the process can vary widely.

What is the nutritional value of cell-based meat?

Cell-based meat can be made to have essentially the same nutritional value as real meat. Unlike many plant-based meat alternatives with more than 20 ingredients (many of which are ultra-processed), its only components are muscle and fat. While it’s possible that cell-based meat could be modified to contain more omega-3 fatty acids, less saturated fat or more vitamins and minerals to make it more healthful, this would require additional processing steps. Similarly, vitamins and minerals would need to be added to match what is traditionally found in real meat and seafood products. Further, meat and seafood currently under development wouldn’t contain collagen by default (however, one cell-based company has recently developed a cultivated collagen that could be used for supplements or other purposes, so it could potentially be added to future products).


When will cell-cultivated meat be available?

On November 16, 2022, the FDA completed its first pre-market consultation of a human food made from cultured animal cells. UPSIDE Foods submitted information on its fillets made from cultured chicken cells, and the FDA had no concerns or questions about its safety conclusion—essentially giving the company approval to proceed to market. The company’s final pre-market step was for its production facility to meet applicable USDA and FDA requirements, which happened in June 2023. (In contrast to the necessary USDA oversight for traditional meat, the FDA and USDA agreed in 2019 that the two agencies would jointly oversee cultured meat.) UPSIDE Food's cell-cultivated meat is now being offered at a restaurant in San Fransico. Eat Just received similar approval, and it is now on the menu at a José Andrés restaurant in Washington, DC. Going forward, the FDA anticipates reviewing submissions from other cultured meat producers and issuing guidance (which will be available for public comment) to assist these companies in preparing for pre-market consultations. It will likely be many months before this meat is available for retail sale in the US and reaches price parity with real meat. Singapore was the first country to approve the sale of cultured chicken from the company Eat Just in 2020, and it opened the world’s largest plant to produce lab-grown meat in Asia in early 2023.


What are the benefits of producing and consuming cell-based meat?

Most of the benefits of eating cell-based meat derive from the potential to reduce our reliance on animal agriculture methods that have been destructive to human and environmental health. Companies developing cell-based meat contributed data to two studies published in 2021. One, a life cycle assessment, estimated that cultured meat will cause up to 92% less global warming and 93% less air pollution and use up to 95% less land and 78% less water than conventional meat. (Note these estimates correspond to beef, which is the type of livestock with the most significant environmental impact among those assessed.) Consuming cell-based meat could also help to avoid the deforestation associated with animal agriculture in other countries (such as Brazil). Because it’s grown in controlled conditions and without antibiotics, cell-based meat could avoid foodborne illnesses (such as E. coli) and other diseases transmitted by animals.


Replacing real meat with cell-based meat would drastically reduce the total number of animals needed to be raised and killed to feed humans. And despite many negative perceptions of the taste of plant-based meats, preliminary taste tests of cell-based meat indicate that even culinary experts cannot distinguish between them and real meats based on their appearance, flavor or smell.

What are the barriers to producing and consuming cell-based meat?

Cell-based meat is yet to be on the retail market and relies on new, advanced technology; therefore, it will be expensive when it first becomes available. The lowest possible cost estimate—which includes assumptions such as a concerted research effort to improve the process and inputs, favorable financing arrangements, enhanced production efficiencies, payback periods and a menu of financing strategies and incentives to lower the cost burden on manufacturers (enabling them to install new infrastructure at high rates)—is $2.92 per pound by 2030. This is notably lower than the average price of ground beef ($5.11 per pound as of September 2023), but the price would not likely be that low. Current technology also can’t produce cell-based meat at a scale that would allow it to replace a significant share of the meat market.


Another barrier to consumer uptake is that religious groups that have traditionally avoided particular types of meat or only eat meat that has been slaughtered in a certain way may not be receptive. Muslim and Jewish religious leaders and individual consumers are still considering and debating whether cell-based meat can be considered halal or kosher, respectively. The receptivity by Hindus, Jains and other religious groups that traditionally eschew meat or use it for spiritual practices is similarly questionable.


Poor perception of this artificial meat form among the broader consumer base and the complicated regulatory approval process may also slow and limit uptake. A complete understanding of the environmental burden associated with production—including the number of materials (e.g., plastics) needed and the waste generated—is also not yet available. Finally, there are various benefits associated with real meat that will not be realized with cell-based food production. For example, animals raised in regenerative, diverse systems can yield environmental benefits (e.g., nutrient cycling and carbon storage). There are also sociocultural benefits (e.g., income and food security for rural populations that can’t grow row crops, history and the terroir—the characteristic taste and flavor imparted by the environment in which food is produced—associated with traditional foods and recipes) that are closely associated with animal agriculture throughout the world.


How can I learn more?

Since cell-based meat isn’t available for purchase yet, there is no urgent need to figure out how to navigate the nutrition claims, price comparisons and other confusing aspects of yet another alternative meat product. In the meantime, you can learn more and stay up to date through the following comprehensive resources:

  • Read more about the science, policy and industry initiatives related to clean meat from the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit think tank network of organizations advancing alternative proteins (including cultured meat)

  • FDA’s “Human Food Made with Cultured Animal Cells” page contains the inventory of completed pre-market consultations for food made from cultured cells (just two as of October 2023), past FDA statements and webinar recordings about the topic and regulatory information


Resources


Christina Badaracco, MPH, RD

Christina is a registered dietitian and author who aims to improve access to healthy and sustainable food and educate Americans about the connections between food and health. She loves to experiment with healthy recipes in the kitchen and share her creations to inspire others to cook.


Christina completed her dietetic internship at Massachusetts General Hospital and earned her Master of Public Health degree from the University of California, Berkeley. Previously, she graduated with a degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Princeton University, after conducting her thesis on sustainable agriculture and energy in Kenya. She has done clinical nutrition research at the National Institutes of Health, menu planning and nutrition education at the Oakland Unified School District and communications at the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Water. She has also enjoyed contributing to children’s gardens, farmers markets and a number of organic farms.


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