“Farm-to-table” has long been a sought-after designation for food—but “lab-to-table” might be the next trend for your favorite animal protein.
In a landmark ruling, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has cleared lab-grown poultry for human consumption. On November 16, the FDA stated it had “no further questions” regarding the production of cell-cultured chicken by California’s Upside Foods.
This is the first time a US government agency has approved lab-grown meat, so there are plenty of questions surrounding its production, safety, and availability. Wondering what lab-grown meat actually is, whether it’s safe, and when you might expect to see it on grocery store shelves? Here’s what we know so far.
Growing meat in a lab is a different process than traditional farming, to say the least—but the meat it creates is biologically the same as “real” chicken.
At Upside Foods, it all starts with a cell sample from a live chicken (hence lab-grown meat’s alternate names: cell-cultured meat or cultivated meat).
“[We take] a cell sample from an animal or fertilized egg and extract the cells that have the ability to grow into animal tissue or meat,” David Kay, Upside Foods’ director of communications, told Health. “From there, we put those cells into a large stainless steel tank called a cultivator that resembles beer-brewing equipment. We then provide the cells with the nutrients they need to grow and multiply.”
You might think of Upside’s chicken production process as the meat equivalent of growing plants in a greenhouse.
“Cultivating meat enables the same biological process that happens inside an animal by providing warmth and the basic elements needed to build muscle and fat: water, proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals,” Maia Keerie, media and communications manager for the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit think tank devoted to alternative protein development, told Health.
Lab-grown meat has long been a dream in the minds of food innovators, but until now, government agencies have remained mum about its suitability for human consumption. So what exactly does the FDA’s “no further questions” designation mean?
In brief, the FDA’s ruling means that Upside’s lab-grown chicken is safe for humans to eat because it doesn’t differ from regular chicken on a cellular level.
“In its rigorous pre-market safety review of Upside Foods’ cultivated chicken, the FDA did not identify any features of the cells as described that would render them different from other animal cells with respect to safety for food use,” said Keerie.
According to Kay, this ruling reflects Upside’s own determinations about the safety of their cell-cultured chicken.
“This landmark regulatory decision means that FDA has accepted our safety conclusion, and Upside’s cultivated chicken will be available to consumers following USDA inspection and label approval,” he said.
Granted, eating chicken created in a stainless steel vat may sound a little odd. If you’re skeptical about the prospect of lab-grown poultry, you’re not alone. Some people have even expressed concern that cell-cultured meat could pose unforeseen health risks.
“The Center for Food Safety says that it’s unknown whether lab-grown meat will pose any more or fewer safety concerns than traditional meat,” Ashley Kitchens, RDN, owner of Plant Centered Nutrition, told Health. “There are arguments that, because lab-grown meat doesn’t have a fully functioning immune system, it’s at a higher risk of contamination.”
Still, Keerie contends that lab-grown meat could actually be superior to conventional meat for food safety.
“Antibiotics and antifungal agents are not used at all during the production process (but may be used in very small quantities during the pre-production phases). Therefore, cultivated meat will not contribute to antibiotic resistance and is likely to result in fewer incidences of foodborne illnesses,” she said. “For example, Upside’s cultivated chicken had very low microbial counts compared to conventional chicken and also tested negative for common foodborne pathogens such as Salmonella.”
Keerie also pointed out that many of the diseases humans encounter stem from problematic farming practices. (According to the CDC, three out of four new or emerging infectious diseases in humans come from animals.) Growing meat in a lab, rather than on a farm, could offer a solution.
“To reduce the risk of zoonotic diseases associated with animals, the cells used in cultivated meat production are carefully screened and confirmed to be absent of infectious pathogens including viruses, bacteria, and other microbes,” said Keerie.
Besides their potential food safety benefits, engineered chicken and other meats have gotten buzz for other pluses—most notably, their sustainability factor. Growing chicken meat in a lab uses far less resources than raising live chickens on a factory farm.
“When produced at scale using renewable energy, cultivated meat is projected to generate a fraction of the emissions and require a fraction of the land and water of conventional meat production,” said Kay.
This could have far-reaching environmental effects. “According to the University of Oxford, lab-grown meat has the potential to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions by 96%, compared to conventionally grown meat,” said Kitchens. “Not only does this cut down on emissions, but it also saves energy.”
Meanwhile, cultivated meat provides a cruelty-free way to enjoy animal protein. Since cultured meat does not require killing living animals, some vegetarians may even find it suitable for consumption. (Though it’s important to note that lab-grown meat is biologically identical to regular meat, so it’s not technically vegetarian.)
Now that lab-grown meat has FDA approval, the next question is when it will become available for everyday consumption. Unlike an expertly butchered piece of chicken or steak, the answer isn’t clear-cut.
“At this time, we don’t have enough information at hand to make an educated estimate of how long it will take for cultivated meat to get to market,” said Keerie.
According to Kay, Upside’s next steps include working with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to obtain additional approvals that will enable the company to sell its products in the US. But he encourages that the FDA’s “no further questions” has moved lab-grown chicken a major step closer to the grocery store meat counter.
Futuristic as it may seem, cultivated meat is likely to make a splash very soon—and may be one key to solving issues of animal welfare, resource usage, and food safety that come with farmed meat. And though lab-grown meat may be a turnoff for some, the majority of Americans are keeping an open mind. “Studies show that 80% of U.S. consumers report they are likely to try cultivated meat,” said Keerie. Will you be one of them?
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