Lab-Grown Meat: When Futuristic Food Becomes Real

2018 could be the year when cultured meat finally becomes marketable. After many years of research, field trials and production improvements, manufacturers expect that lab-grown meat could make its way to restaurants by end of 2018. However, there are still some issues which have to be solved before the first lab-grown chicken nuggets, are ready to be sold.

Cultured meat, in vitro meat, synthetic meat or vat-grown meat: there are several terms, which describe meat coming from the lab. This special kind of meat is not vegetarian or vegan because cells from animals are still used for the production; however, no animal is harmed. Even Winston Churchill had already predicted the appearance of cultured meat in 1931 by trying to emphasize the importance of finding other options instead of killing animals in order to eat only one part of the animal. His counter proposal: Growing eatable animal parts separately under a suitable medium. Nevertheless, it took more than 80 years until the first lab-grown burger patty was presented to the public.

In 2013 scientists from Maastricht University introduced the first cultured beef burger patty at a news conference in London. The patty was cooked live on air and afterwards tested by food trends researcher Hanni Rützler. Rützler, who is also known for her restaurants reviews, came to the conclusion that the cultured beef patty tasted like meat and in a blind trial she wouldn't be able to distinguish between lab-grown meat and meat which comes from a slaughtered animal. The first public trial was a success and afterwards, several startups have made advances in this field. Their aim: Making cultured meat marketable and affordable for everyone.

While eating meat has always meant the death of an animal, it is no longer the case with cultured meat. Stem cells are being taken from animals which are alive. They don't have to be killed or hurt in any way. The production of cultured meat covers three stages. At first, cells which have a rapid rate of proliferation have to be collected. These so-called starter cells are treated in a second step by applying a protein that promotes tissue growth. Afterwards, they are placed in a culture media in which they receive the energetic requirements they need. A scaffold is used in the third step to ensure that three-dimensional meat grows. Growing meat this way takes time. The process of making a hamburger patty takes for example about nine weeks. While the first lab-grown burger patty was about €250,000 worth, experts assume that the price for a hamburger will be around $ 10 and therefore ready to be sold in restaurants and supermarkets. While consumers can look forward to lab-grown burger patties, sausages or chicken nuggets, it might take a while until lab-grown steak will be available. The original structure of a steak is much more complex than for example, a chicken nugget - it will be difficult to reproduce such a structure. However, it is not impossible.

Cultured meat appears to be increasingly promising but justified questions are coming up as well: How should lab-grown meat be labelled? The US Cattlemen's Association (USCA) has initiated the first steps regarding the establishment of labelling requirements. The USCA insists that meat which comes from the lab shouldn't be labelled as "man-made" or as an "artificially manufactured product". The association has already submitted a petition to the US Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service in which they ask for clear labelling requirements. Lab-grown meat startups should not be able to call their products "meat" because their product doesn't come from slaughtered animals. However, no decisions have been made so far. But since lab-grown meat is closer to being sold on the market than ever before, it is safe to assume that this debate will continue.