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Growing Cultured Meat in a Lab: Where's the Beef?


Far from traditional kitchens, international scientists have been cooking up a way to produce cultured meat and bring it to tables around the world. Cultured meat is meat that begins its life in a test tube or petri dish and ultimately, if all progresses as scientists hope, will end up on your dish.

Is cultured meat...meat?

According to New Harvest, an organization headed by international scientists and founded to support the development of meat substitutes, cultured meat production begins when some cells taken from a cow or other farm animal are cultured in a nutrient-rich medium, where they multiply. The cells are then attached to a “scaffold” and nourished with nutrients.

The nourished cells can then be “mechanically stretched to increase their size and protein content,” and the result will be boneless, processed, cultured meat that can be enjoyed as hamburger, sausage, or chicken nuggets.

Right before Labor Day, 25 scientists met in Sweden at a workshop arranged by Chalmers University of Technology and the European Science Foundation to discuss the research being done on cultured meat and the direction development is taking. These experts have specialties in stem cells, food technology, and tissue engineering, and are ethicists, environmental scientists, and economists.

Word is that the recipe is coming together, including “a cell source that is possible to use, several alternative processes to turn these cells into muscle cells for meat, and nutrients free of animal components which can be produced from sunlight and carbon dioxide.”

The advantages of bringing cultured meat to the table are significant. Compared with current factory farming techniques, for example, cultured meat would mean a dramatic decline in land and water use (both for raising the animals and growing the food to feed the animals) and greenhouse gas emissions. Fat content could be controlled, and the possibility of foodborne diseases could also be reduced. Food animal suffering could virtually disappear.

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Thus far, the scientists say they have not uncovered any crucial arguments against cultured meat. One of the workshop participants, Stellan Welin, professor in biotechnology, culture and society, noted that “On the contrary, several ethical problems would be solved, especially concerning animal welfare issues.”

Scientists at the Swedish workshop reached a consensus on a variety of issues. For example, they determined that the nutrients to nourish the cultured cells must be produced with renewable energy and not consist of animal products. One possible candidate is blue-green algae.

But if the quest for cultured meat is to move forward, “research activities have to increase substantially,” said Julie Gold, associate professor in biological physics at Chalmers. The scientists believe it is time to extend discussions regarding cultured meat beyond the research community.

Will we be seeing cultured meat on our dinner tables anytime in the near future? New Harvest states “within several years, it may be possible to produce cultured meat in a processed form, like sausage, hamburger, or chicken nuggets, with modifications of existing technologies.” If a pork chop or steak is more to your liking, those may take 10 years or more to develop.

For now, cultured meat is not a menu item. However, there are a wide variety of other meat and dairy substitutes on the market made from soybeans, wheat, peas, and mycoproteins (from fungus). These meat substitutes come in the form of burgers, hot dogs, sausages, nuggets, wings, and deli slices and are readily available in many traditional supermarkets.

Chalmers University of Technology
New Harvest

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons