Where’s The Beef? Lab-Grown Meat Gets U.S. Approval
People have been looking for meat-alternatives for decades. Vegetarians avoid animal products for many reasons, from concerns over animal treatment and slaughtering practices to the meat industry’s climate impacts. Methane from cows and other livestock contribute about 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions.
There have been plant-based alternatives on the market for awhile now, but another method has quietly gained steam over the past decade: meat grown in a lab, using cultured cells. This past June, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved two companies—Eat Just and Upside—to grow and sell cultivated chicken products in the U.S. Lab-developed beef will likely be next, while some companies are even working on cultivated pet food meat. (Lab-grown mouse meat kibble, anyone?)
But will growing tissue in a lab actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and… will people even want to eat it? Joining Ira to discuss this beefy topic is Casey Crownhart, climate reporter at the MIT Technology Review, who talks about how this kind of meat is made in a lab, the challenges the industry faces, and what lab-grown beef patty tastes like.
Casey Crownhart is a climate reporter for MIT Technology Review in New York, New York.
IRA FLATOW: People have been looking for alternatives to meat for decades. Methane from cows and other livestock contribute about 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Vegetarians, they stay away from meat, and some people aren’t comfortable with slaughtering practices.
There have been plant-based alternatives on the market for quite a while now. But another method has quietly gained steam over the past decade, meat grown in a lab using cultured cells. This June, the US Department of Agriculture gave approval to two companies to make and sell cultivated chicken products in this country. But will this new method actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions? And will people even want to eat it?
Joining me now to give us an update about this project is my guest who’s been reporting on this topic, Casey Crownhart, climate reporter at MIT Technology Review. She’s based in New York. Welcome back to Science Friday.
CASEY CROWNHART: Thanks so much for having me back.
IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. So lab-grown meat just got a significant green light last month. Can you talk about the journey that meat alternatives have had for the last couple of decades?
CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah, so you touched on this a little bit. But it’s been a long road for lab-grown or cultivated meat. Theoretically, this possibility has been around for decades. Experiments picked up in the early 2000s. NASA got into this game.
But in 2013, there was this big demonstration. The first lab-grown hamburger was made. And it was fed to food critics. But that cost over $300,000 to make at the time. But it was a spark for the field.
And so we started to see startups getting launched in the early and mid-2010s. And recently, companies have started to hit more milestones. Cultivated meat was approved for the first time in Singapore in 2020. And now with this approval for the US market, it’s been a lot of big steps for this industry.
IRA FLATOW: Give me an idea of how you actually make lab-grown meat. How does that work?
CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah, totally. So you start out with an animal. So you can either take a little sample of muscle tissue from a living, probably a young animal. Or you can take cells from an egg. That’s how they do chicken.
And so all animals are made up of cells. And so what scientists can do is isolate those cells and then grow them in a controlled way in a lab, basically in giant, stainless steel tanks. So you’ll have cells floating around in this salty, sugary broth, growing and multiplying. It might look a little bit like a brewery, basically.
But yeah, so these cells grow in these tanks. And then eventually, they can get filtered out from the liquid that they’re floating around in, once they’ve grown and divided enough. And then companies can take those cells and do a little bit of extra processing to turn it into some sort of meat product. So they can press it together into patties or grow it in another extra step to turn it into a final meat product.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. Does it actually look like meat? I know you’ve had a chance to taste the burger grown in the lab. Tell me what it looks like. What was the experience? What did it taste like? And did you sort of feel like a little queasy at first when you bit in?
CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah. I wasn’t queasy at all about it. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just because I’ve spent a good amount of time in labs. But I was just really excited to taste it.
The company that I tried food from is called Ohio Valley. And they’re trying to do lab-grown burgers. The product that I got to try was a blended product. They’re plant-based burgers on the market today, like Impossible or Beyond Meet.
My takeaway was that the texture wasn’t quite the same as burgers that I usually eat. But I thought it tasted a good amount like a hamburger. So I don’t know. It’s really tough to imagine eating this kind of stuff that’s grown in the lab every day. But when I did it, it didn’t really feel all that weird.
IRA FLATOW: So that sort of reminds me when I tasted veggie burgers. They were really close to hamburgers, but you sort of knew they weren’t.
CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah, yeah, it’s not quite the same. But I mean, I’m interested to see that the field is still developing. I think texture is one of the things that a lot of companies are really trying to work on. So we’ll see if they can get, I don’t know, even better.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I know you’ve done a lot of reporting on this topic. Is that because you have a special relationship with meat? Have you been a vegetarian?
CASEY CROWNHART: I did a very brief stint as a vegetarian when I was growing up. I think this is a common experience for people in my generation, that at one point, you find a video on YouTube of slaughterhouse conditions. And so that’s what happened to me. I was probably 12 or 13, and I was absolutely horrified.
And so I swore that I would never eat meat ever again. And I didn’t last very long, because, I mean, meat is just so central to our culture and to social life and everything. So major props to people who are able to totally cut meat out of their diet when they’re raised to eat meat. But I found it really difficult.
And so today, there’s a lot of concerns about meat. Also, from a climate perspective and as a climate reporter, I try to cut down on the meat in my diet. But yeah, today I’m sort of a half and a half. I’m not a full vegetarian. I’m not a vegan. But I am really interested in alternatives and cutting down on animal-based meat, personally.
IRA FLATOW: That’s interesting to hear. Because I know you came from a really big meat-eating family, right?
CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah, I did. My dad took me hunting growing up. It was very central to our diet and how we grew up. We ate the meat that my dad would hunt or that we would go with him. So yeah, I think that’s part of it, too. It’s a lot based on your cultural background and where you come from for sure.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. You talked a bit about cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions. Is it clear-cut? Do we know at the moment if lab-grown meat is actually better for the environment? Might there be steps about the footprint that you have to go through?
CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah, it’s been a big question for the field, I think, especially as these first approvals have started to come through. Climate impacts is one of the big promises of lab-grown meat. You would need less land to raise animals. You would have less cows around burping out methane if you were able to do all of this in reactors and big factories.
And ideally, eventually, you could even power the whole thing with renewable energy. There are concerns, though, because what the reality of lab-grown meat looks like today isn’t exactly optimized to cut down on emissions. We don’t have a ton of renewable energy available.
And also, the industry is borrowing a lot of techniques from biopharmaceuticals, so these processes where companies can grow cells for pharmaceutical products. And so you might imagine that those inputs have to be really, really purified, really, really filtered, and really clean. So it takes a lot of energy and resources to do that.
And so if you look at what companies are doing in labs today and obviously, without powering things with renewable energy, the climate impacts can be pretty bad from what lab-grown meat looks like today, actually. But I would say the industry is in its early days. Companies are working to use products that won’t have to go through this intense purification, won’t use so much energy to make.
And they really want to be able to offer a product that’s affordable and also better for the climate. So I think the takeaway for me is that we’re not quite there yet on a lab-grown meat product that is a climate savior. But the road is pointing towards a lower emissions product.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, let’s go down that road. Let’s imagine 10 years down the road, and they have solved these problems. Maybe the cost of this will go down. It turns out to be more environmentally friendly to grow meat in a lab. Now the question is, do you think people will actually shift their habits and buy this? And I ask because veggie burgers were a big hit when they were first introduced and now not so much.
CASEY CROWNHART: Mm-hmm, yeah, I mean, it’s a really good question. And we’ve seen some of that with the plant-based meat market, as well, that there’s a lot of interest in Beyond and Impossible. But at least in the US, it’s cooled off a little bit in the past year or so.
I will say, that if companies are really able to nail a replacement that’s really, really similar to meat, which I don’t think that plant alternatives or things like black bean burgers or these new age plant replacements have been able to do, if companies are able to make a product that is, basically, the same thing as a burger, and it’s affordable or even cheaper, I think that people would sign on. But I don’t think it’s going to be trivial to get people over that ick factor of something that’s grown in the lab.
And that’s why a lot of companies actually don’t really like the term lab-grown meat. You see a lot of these products. The USDA and FDA approvals were for the term “cultivated chicken.” And so that’s the word that they’re trying to use to start getting people more comfortable with this idea of meat that’s produced in a different way.
And what they say is that when we’re talking about burgers, we don’t say a slaughtered burger or slaughtered meat. So I don’t know. It’s interesting to think about how much we do or don’t think about where our food products come from.
IRA FLATOW: And that’s interesting that you bring it up because some people might say, well, you’re worried about an ick factor with lab-grown meat? What about the ick factor of slaughtering all these animals?
CASEY CROWNHART: Exactly, yeah. It’s different because this is something that we’re just used to. We don’t even think about it. This is how people have gotten meat for centuries, thousands of years. So I don’t know.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it’s interesting. You mentioned this a bit earlier when you said you tested the beef burgers. Where is the beef here? I mean, is beef next on the list? Do you think it will leapfrog the chicken industry?
CASEY CROWNHART: Yeah, so some of the companies are looking at beef. Cows are really the worst for the climate as far as animals that we eat. They have the highest emissions per gram of meat. And so some companies are looking at doing beef.
I think we will see burgers probably on the list of approvals before too long. I’m also really interested in the fish industry. I think there are a couple of companies doing cultivated tuna and salmon.
IRA FLATOW: Oh, really?
CASEY CROWNHART: Mm-hmm, yeah. And so I think those are products that I am very interested to, hopefully, get to try before too long.
IRA FLATOW: Or maybe you’ll just turn right into a food reporter.
Forget this climate reporting stuff. Right?
CASEY CROWNHART: The possibility is open. I did find, though, when I was reporting the story, doing the taste test of the lab-grown burger, it’s really hard to describe the experience of tasting something, trying to convey the texture and taste of a product. And so, yeah, major props to people who write about food and try to share that experience. Because it’s such a subjective thing. It’s such a personal thing, I think, how we eat.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, well, thank you, Casey.
CASEY CROWNHART: Thanks so much, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: Casey Crownhart, climate reporter for the MIT Technology Review. And if you want to see a picture of the cultivated meat burger that Casey tried, head over to sciencefriday.com/fakemeat.