Lab-Grown Meats Are Finally Inching Closer To Commercial
The United States is one of the largest consumers of meat in the world, with the average American eating 273 pounds of meat per year That’s not to say that tastes aren’t changing: Nearly a quarter of Americans say they have cut down on meat consumption, and 41% of Americans under 50 have tried plant-based meat.
There’s been a wave of companies and academic institutions working on cellular agriculture—a fancy way of saying animal products grown from cells in labs, and not from a meat farm. While lab-grown meat is not available in grocery stores yet, the FDA gave approval to make meat from animal cell culture for the first time in November. Upside Foods, the company making the product, makes chicken from cells grown in tanks.
Joining Ira to talk about cell agriculture are Andrew Stout, cellular agriculture biologist based in Boston, Massachusetts, and Aryé Elfenbein, co-founder of Wildtype, based in San Francisco, California, a company working on growing seafood from cells.
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Dr. Andrew Stout is a cellular agriculture biologist based in Boston, Massachusetts.
Dr. Aryé Elfenbein is co-founder of Wildtype, in San Francisco, California.
IRA FLATOW: If you’re like me, have you walked down the aisles of the meat section in the supermarket and thought, that’s a lot of meat? That’s a lot of water that went toward raising and feeding the cattle? Is that sustainable?
Well, perhaps lots of others have the same thoughts, because tastes are changing here in the US. Nearly a quarter of Americans say they’ve cut down on eating meat. And close to half of Americans under 50 have tried plant-based meat. I mean, I like those veggie burgers.
But if you must have the real thing or something closer to it, there’s another alternative on the horizon called cellular agriculture. That’s a fancy way of saying animal products grown in a lab from cells. There are companies and academic researchers working on a future where you could buy burgers and sashimi– even butter– that never came from a living, breathing animal.
So what are the hurdles that these products face? And when could we see them in your supermarket? That’s what we’re going to be talking about this hour. If you’d like to join us, our number, 844-724-8255, 844-SCI-TALK. Or you can also tweet us @SciFri.
Let me introduce my guest. Dr. Andrew Stout, cellular agriculture biologist, based in Boston, and Dr. Arye Elfenbein, co-founder of Wildtype, based in San Francisco. Welcome, both of you, to Science Friday.
ARYE ELFENBEIN: Thank you so much for having us.
ANDREW STOUT: Yeah, thank you so much. A pleasure to be here.
IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you.
Andrew, I know you work on cow cells. Give me the ABCs. Can you walk me through how you build meat in a lab?
ANDREW STOUT: Yeah, totally. So I do personally work with cow cells. But you can use cells from any species that you’re interested in, be it a terrestrial species, a fish species, whatever it is. And what we do is we go to the animal. At Tufts University, we work with the Vet School. And they have a herd of cattle. And we go and we get a small biopsy of muscle or fat tissue from a cow. So we work with a veterinarian there, who will take basically a jelly bean-sized piece of tissue from the cow.
We then isolate the tissue-specific stem cells. So muscle-specific stem cells or fat-specific stem cells. And once we’ve isolated those cells, we can grow them in a lab using whatever processes we want that have been developed in biomedicine and tissue engineering for cell culture. So we take these cells. We feed them a nutrient broth, called culture media, which contains the amino acids, sugars, all those things that the cells need to survive, as well as certain proteins that signal to the cells and tell them what to do.
And what we want them to do is to grow a lot. So we start with this jelly bean size of tissue, and the goal is to grow kilograms and kilograms of cells from this starting cell mass. And once you have that cell mass, that biomass of muscle or fat cells, it then needs to be built into a product. And there are a couple of ways to do that.
A lot of what people are working on now is, basically, incorporating those cells with some sort of plant-based filler or binder or something like that to provide texture to the cells to have a food product. Or looking into more biomimetic tissue engineering strategies, you can take those cells and incorporate them into something that’s called a scaffold, which basically is an extracellular environment, that encourages the cells to really mature and differentiate into mature muscle and fat tissue that looks identical to what you might find in an animal. And in that way, you can get something like a whole cut of steak or whatever your meat of interest is.
IRA FLATOW: Does it taste like meat?
ANDREW STOUT: We got to my biggest insecurity very quickly, which is that I have actually never eaten cultured meat. So I’ve been working in the field for about 10 years now, and I’ve never ate it. And that’s because, in the lab where I work, we do things on a really small scale. So we’re studying cell biology. And we’re just answering the biological questions that don’t really necessitate at-scale production.
So I’ll turn the question to Arye, because he has. And so he’ll have a much better sense of that.
IRA FLATOW: OK. Arye, does it taste like meat?
ARYE ELFENBEIN: Yeah. I mean, in our case, we work on seafood, and salmon in particular. And I’ll say that, in the beginning, we weren’t sure exactly which nutrients to feed these cells when we grew them. We had to guess. And over time, I think, as we were able to better understand how these cells grow, what keeps them in a state where they are thriving, the flavors were ones that became more similar to what you’d expect from conventional salmon. And so in our case, it actually does. And we’ve now done a lot of taste testing, seeing what future customers think, what are the complexities of flavor and texture, what are the aromas that we think about.
And in the case of salmon even, there’s a pretty wide spectrum of the kind of wild, very sort of subtle flavors, to ones that are much fishier. And often that’s what we’re used to for farmed fish.
IRA FLATOW: Can you choose how it tastes by what you feed it in the laboratory?
ARYE ELFENBEIN: Absolutely. Just like in the wild, the way that a certain animal will taste as meat will be largely dependent on what it’s consumed during its life. And so you can see that when farmed fish are typically fattier than wild fish, who spend their lives either swimming away from predators or trying to catch prey.
IRA FLATOW: I know that in November there was a big hurdle cleared for cellular agriculture, when the company UPSIDE Foods received FDA approval for its lab-grown chicken, Andrew. How big a deal is this for the industry?
ANDREW STOUT: Yeah, I think it’s really quite a big deal. It’s not the end of the story. For a product like chicken, UPSIDE Foods now has to go and get USDA approval as well. And so there’s still regulatory hurdles to jump. But I think that the field, at least from my perspective, was really quite happily not surprised, but the outcome of the FDA announcement seemed to really be something of a best case scenario, at least from my perspective.
There were a lot of interesting aspects of the product that UPSIDE was discussing and presenting that the FDA supported and was OK with. Which I think opened the doors pretty wide for the field.
IRA FLATOW: And how close are we to getting– I’ll ask both of you– Arye, you can answer first– how close are we to seeing something in the stores?
ARYE ELFENBEIN: Yeah. I mean, in our case, we’ve been in discussions with FDA for a little over four years now. And what I can say is that it’s been a very thoughtful process, invariably. And I think, as we and other companies in the space also approach that letter of no further questions, essentially– is how the FDA puts it– I think we can probably start to see the first products hopefully this year.
IRA FLATOW: OK. Let’s go to the phones. Lots of people. 844-724-8255.
Michael, in Fayette, Alabama. Hi, Michael.
MICHAEL: Good afternoon. Thanks big time for taking my call. I would personally try this meat out– lab cultured, whatever it’s called– myself if you all found a way to include liquid meat smoke or some other type of smoky flavor into it. I think it would get much bigger reception from customers in developing and developed countries who’ve never tried it.
My concern is about something that vegetarians, especially secular vegetarians, don’t talk much about, and in the past, 40 to 50 years ago, environmentalists and animal protectionists, wildlife protectionists, didn’t seem to care about. And that’s people in the third world, which is a huge– as a Christian, a huge concern of mine. Is there any way that this, and also soy protein artificial meat, can be increased like with food processing companies or charities, especially the wonderful child sponsorship charities, to increase production or to get farmers themselves in the third world involved in producing it and having a market for it, as well as for their children and family members?
Oh, and one more favor to the SciFri staff. Please consider a wonderful way to even further reduce carbon emissions in the future. Because I don’t think that electric vehicles alone will do it.
IRA FLATOW: All right.
MICHAEL: Plant-based plastics and maybe hard plastics maybe from dead animal bones for a future episode. Thank you very much.
IRA FLATOW: OK. That’s an interesting topic. What about– let me ask both Andrew and Arye– what about sustainability? Will this help in the world, Andrew?
ANDREW STOUT: Yeah, sure. I can take the first stab. So I guess the best answer is I really hope so and I really believe so. That’s been a huge motivation for me throughout the time that I’ve worked in this field. It’s really what got me interested in it in the first place.
And basically, it boils down to the fact that when you feed any animal– and I think that beef are often the biggest culprits here– but when you feed a cow food, its caloric conversion efficiency is really low. So you feed a cow I think it’s about 10 calories to get 1 calorie of meat out. And that inefficiency inherently has sustainability limitations. And so by focusing your input calorie energy on cell growth, you’re able to hopefully increase that efficiency in a way that really benefits sustainability.
The one thing that I’ll add to that– and I think that I’ll add to the listener’s question– is that I think that these are all possibilities for cultured meat, but they need to be focused on and they need to be worked on. They’re not inevitable outcomes of the technology. And so groups that are working on this need to be asking, how can we ensure that we’re not just focusing on getting this on the market, but we’re focusing on getting it on the market in as sustainable of a way as possible, as equitable of a way as possible, in a way that can benefit countries all around the world with different crop systems and different food cultures, and all of that?
IRA FLATOW: Our listeners are very interested in this angle. Sarah, from Duluth, tweets– thinks it’s a great idea and more sustainable. Julie, from Minneapolis, wants to know what’s the environmental impact of lab-grown meat versus traditional farming? Have you put that into your equations yet?
ANDREW STOUT: Yeah, I’ll let Arye talk about that one maybe.
IRA FLATOW: We’ve lost Arye for a moment.
ANDREW STOUT: Oh, OK. OK. No worries. Well, then, I can definitely tackle it.
IRA FLATOW: Please, do that.
ANDREW STOUT: Yeah. So there have been a number of life cycle assessment studies. Which is basically the field of study of asking the question, if we project out a world where we have at-scale cultured meat production, what does the environmental impact look like? And it’s hard to get really exact details from those studies. They’re inherently noisy. It incorporates a lot of assumptions.
But generally, there seem to be some coalescing takeaways that are pretty consistent. It looks like cultured meat has a big potential to have significantly less greenhouse gas emissions and global warming potential specifically from its ability to reduce methane emissions.
IRA FLATOW: Oh, that’s interesting.
ANDREW STOUT: So when we think of cattle as emitters, a big aspect of that is methane, which has a much higher global warming potential than something like carbon dioxide. And so that’s a big lever that can be pulled.
Also, in terms of land use and water use, it’s projected that cultured meat could really, really reduce the impact there. The area where it’s a little bit more less well understood is in electricity consumption and energy usage from that perspective. And that’s basically because it takes a lot of energy to run the bioreactors and it doesn’t take all that much electricity to run a cow.
IRA FLATOW: Got it. Let’s go to Orlando, to Joe. Hi. Welcome to Science Friday.
JOE: Hey, can you hear me?
IRA FLATOW: Yes. Go ahead.
JOE: Hey. Thank you so much for taking my call. I love SciFri. I’m really glad you’re talking about this. I’m a whole foods vegan so I’m really– I’m not going to be eating it, but I am concerned about the 85 billion land animals that we slaughter every year and 3 trillion fish that we slaughter every year, emitting 87% of the greenhouse gases. So I’m really happy that this option is developing. And I’m hoping that this will lead to animal liberation and eliminate the suffering of the animals.
IRA FLATOW: Why won’t you eat this if you’re a vegan and it doesn’t come from a real animal?
JOE: Well, we have to understand that animal products are loaded with saturated fat, cholesterol, antibiotics, hormones, and overall, I mean, it causes inflammation in the body. So I’m concerned about that. And we have over 300,000 fruits and vegetables, nuts, grains, seeds, mushrooms. So why not eat our body and feed our body, which is the temple for our soul?
IRA FLATOW: OK. Thank you for calling, Joe.
Have you have you heard that, Andrew or Arye, from other vegans, that they’re not really going to jump on this bandwagon?
ARYE ELFENBEIN: Yeah, for sure. We’ve actually had people who have tried fish for the first time in their lives when they’ve come to visit us at Wildtype. Which is always actually kind of an emotional thing to see. It’s a really special moment. But I think some people who haven’t grown up with those flavors or haven’t really experienced that don’t often have the curiosity to know what it’s all about. And so there often isn’t as much interest.
And the interesting thing also is the reason behind people being vegan. So if it is for either animal rights or ecologic conservation or for any reasons like that, then our product sort of takes a lot of those moral issues off the table. But at the same time, it’s not a vegan product. The main ingredient, in our case, are fish cells.
IRA FLATOW: Right. Andrew, can you adjust the nutritional content to make it more nutritious?
ANDREW STOUT: Yeah, totally. So that’s an area of research that I focused on a lot a few years ago. And so what we did specifically was we engineered the cow muscle cells to produce beta carotene, which is an antioxidant that’s found in high levels in, say, carrots. It’s what turns carrots orange. And it’s a nutrient that’s not typically present in beef. But by engineering the cow cells to produce that beta carotene, we’re able to reduce the oxidation that comes from cooking and consuming red meat.
And that lipid oxidation is one of the things that’s actually associated between red and processed meat consumption and increased incidences of diseases such as colorectal cancer. So we were trying to basically show, along the proof of principle of that idea, that you can engineer these cells to have nutrient profiles that might be better than you could get from conventional meat.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. That’s quite interesting. Andrew, we’ve talked about some of the ethics of why to choose cell ag meat versus normal meat. A big reason for some people is animal rights. However, to traditionally make cell ag meat, you need something called fetal bovine serum. And that’s nutritional slurry made from baby cows. What is the status on the cell ag industry moving away from this?
ANDREW STOUT: Yeah. I think that the status is that we have moved away from it. I think that as new cells are isolated and incorporated– and if we develop systems for new species, then FBS has proven time and time again– or fetal bovine serum, FBS– has proven time and time again to be a very valuable research tool. But groups that are working on large-scale production have moved away from fetal bovine serum. And there’s been an increasing number of publications and academic literature basically providing recipes for culture media that don’t use fetal bovine serum.
So I think that media development is still a big open question. There’s a lot of optimization that needs to happen. There’s a lot of cost reduction that needs to happen. But I think the question of whether we’ll ultimately be able to get away from FBS is definitely an answered one.
ARYE ELFENBEIN: Yeah, I agree. I’d say that pretty much every company has or is moving towards that. For us, we haven’t been producing with animal serum for quite a while now. It’s just when we started to look at what these cells needed to grow– and a lot of these papers actually came out of the 1970s– without knowing what to feed them, this was the kind of magical elixir in which pretty much any animal cell type would be able to grow. But I think every company in this space is certainly moving away from it.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Kim in Scottsdale, Arizona. Hi, Kim. Welcome to Science Friday.
KIM: Hi. The comment I wanted to make is that I definitely would give it a try mainly because my husband is a hunter and we’ve eaten just about every type of meat that you could possibly name. And so why not this? So that’s my comment.
IRA FLATOW: So you would just add this as another meat to try?
KIM: Exactly. Yeah. I mean, I’ve eaten bear and javelina and all sorts of weird stuff. So why not?
IRA FLATOW: Why not?
ARYE ELFENBEIN: That’s great.
IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Kim. There’s a future fan for you.
ARYE ELFENBEIN: Yeah, I love that.
IRA FLATOW: What is the biggest hurdle that’s facing– sometimes I give out a blank check question to my guests, which is a way of asking them, how much money do you need? What’s the biggest hurdle? Let me ask you, what is the biggest hurdle toward getting more salmon, lab-based salmon, on our plates?
ARYE ELFENBEIN: I think the biggest hurdle is actually time. So every aspect of what we need to do has, in a different context, been done. So people have grown cells at large scale before. People have been able to get cells to turn into muscle or fat or something like that. That is not the issue. But we made a calculation recently that if we were to produce just 1% of the seafood that is consumed in the world, if we were able to do that, it would actually require all of the steel tanks in the world to do that.
IRA FLATOW: Wow.
ARYE ELFENBEIN: And so when you think about what it means to have a meaningful impact, it means in many cases rethinking a lot of the technologies of fermentation, and how can we use different materials? How can we think about ways to do it even more efficiently than for beer, for example?
And so what we think about more than anything else is, are we going to be able to scale up these technologies fast enough to offset a lot of the deleterious consequences that we’re seeing in the environment right now?
IRA FLATOW: Not only that, but can you scale it up enough so that it’s cheap enough to eat, right? And price must be a big–
ARYE ELFENBEIN: Right. Yeah. When we started almost six years ago, if we were to have made a whole pound of salmon, it probably would have cost about $400,000 a pound. We certainly didn’t do that. And we just have now– and I think also most companies in this space– have really been able to look at a lot of the inefficiencies in growing these types of products and are really approaching price parity pretty quickly. I don’t think that’s going to be as much of an issue as I think people believed in the early days of this field.
IRA FLATOW: We have a tweet coming in. Robert, on Twitter, asks, can lab-grown meat be engineered to not spoil, Andrew? I mean, if it’s real meat, it’s going to spoil, isn’t it?
ANDREW STOUT: Yeah. So that’s a great question. So there are different ways that meat can spoil and go bad. One is microbial. So you have bacteria that are present on an animal, and there’s some number of colony-forming units of that bacteria on me. And eventually, it’ll go bad because those will grow. And that’s when you start seeing mold on your food.
I think that cultured meat has enormous potential to drastically reduce that risk of spoilage because these cells have to be grown in sterile environments. You can’t have any bacteria or fungi in the culture with the cells because they’ll outcompete the animal cells and you’ll just get a culture full of bacteria. So because of that, these products, when they exit the bioreactor, are going to be much more sterile than a piece of meat when it exits a cow. So that’s one answer.
And then the other side is the other form of spoilage is chemical and metabolic processes that happen in food. So earlier I mentioned lipid oxidation is this thing that we were trying to engineer the cells away from. And that’s relevant from a nutrition perspective, but it’s also really relevant from a spoilage perspective. Because lipid oxidation is the number one cause of non-microbial food quality degradation in meat.
And so if you can engineer the cells using these same processes to try to control lipid oxidation or things like that, then I think you could also really impact the shelf life of those foods in a positive way.
IRA FLATOW: Interesting. Let’s go to Tom, in Chicago. Hi, Tom. Welcome to Science Friday.
TOM: Hey, thanks for having me.
IRA FLATOW: Go ahead.
TOM: Yeah. So I have a question. I was wondering, have they or have you or would you engineer anything that’s either illegal or unethical to eat, such as the American bald eagle? Because I would like to know what that tastes like.
IRA FLATOW: OK. I guess that’s a serious question, right, Tom?
ARYE ELFENBEIN: Yeah.
TOM: Well, it’s about ethics. It’s actually about ethics.
IRA FLATOW: OK. A good question. Thanks for calling. Let’s get an answer to that. Arye, Andrew?
ARYE ELFENBEIN: Yeah. I mean, it’s a great question. I think, from the early days of imagining what these types of technologies could do, people have wondered, could we see what a dinosaur steak tastes like? And I think that these types of things, while they might be possible, I think, to the best of my knowledge, no companies are actively working on these types of animals.
I believe that there are some companies working on more what we’d consider exotic animals or animals that are not typically thought of as just sort of conventional meat or seafoods. And some have actually even worked on combining different species and the cells of different species to create certain culinary properties that maybe we wouldn’t have been able to imagine from a single animal.
IRA FLATOW: Sherry, in Fort Collins, Colorado. Hi, Sherry. Welcome to Science Friday.
SHERRY: Hi, Ira. I have two things to say about this. One, I wouldn’t eat it because it is an ultra-processed food. And recent studies in nutrition have shown that processed foods cause inflammation and may even be a greater contributor to heart disease, cancer, and other diseases than sugar and bad fats. So I wouldn’t eat it for that reason.
And another is I think it’s the wrong direction to go in as far as the health of the planet. Because if we eat less meat and we use the meat that we raise to sequester carbon in the soil, and in a regenerative agriculture natural system, we can raise better crops, reduce water, and use these animals in a humane way to raise better quality food for humans and improve the planet’s soil health.
ARYE ELFENBEIN: I completely agree with that. So I actually still work as a cardiologist in the intensive care unit and think about this a lot, about what processing means, what nutritive or more healthy products mean. In our case, I think a lot of the processing steps that you might be describing actually don’t apply and aren’t part of what production is.
But your second point is I would say even more important. Because the answer would be to consume less meat and seafood. We see all of the consequences of that. But that said, I think looking at where the trends are going in terms of both, in our case, when we think about fish farming and wild caught, both have been proven to be unsustainable. And we’re seeing the demand just continue to increase more and more.
And so while that would be the solution, we actually just don’t see humans making those decisions as a species, unfortunately. And so this is a way to provide another alternative.
IRA FLATOW: Ben, in Monterey, Vermont. Hi, Ben. Welcome to Science Friday.
BEN: Hi, Ira. I had two questions. The first has been covered. But I wanted to bring up the topic of regenerative agriculture. And as a farmer myself who raises regenerative meat just voice my concern that the focus on lab-grown meat perhaps does detract from the focus on meats that restore the planet. And as we’ve heard, to make– and 1% of the fish would require an enormous amount of resources. And we have the way to deal with this just with some minor tweaks to our farming systems.
IRA FLATOW: Good comment. Thanks for calling.
What about that, Arye, regenerative meat being able to work in that way he describes?
ARYE ELFENBEIN: Yeah, I don’t think that any one technique or approach on its own is going to solve the problems that we have. I think that we actually need all of this. For example, when it comes to fishing, I think that the price that we pay for a wild caught, let’s say, salmon should be far higher than what it is. People who are stewards of the ocean, who care about the numbers of fish that they pull out of the water every year, who are really attuned to this, should be able to command a premium, I think, that is far greater than what we have now and what people are used to paying.
And so I think that the only way to really address this is with approaches– and I actually really applaud the efforts of regenerative agriculture. I think it’s incredible. And this is definitely the direction we should be moving when it comes to conventional agriculture. It’s just not clear to me if that on its own is going to be able to keep up with the increasing demand.
IRA FLATOW: Arlene, in Corvallis, Oregon, you’re next. Hi, Arlene.
IRA FLATOW: Hi. Go for it.
ARLENE: Thank you. Yeah. So my first comment is about something that was discussed earlier about, why wouldn’t a vegan or a vegetarian eat this product? And I think you’re missing a key point, that one of the reasons people choose to not eat meat is because we don’t want the flesh of an animal in our mouth to begin with. We just don’t agree with consuming animals, period, right? So I think you kind of missed that point.
Secondly, the idea of creating a new product that maybe blends properties from different animals, to me that sounds like a slippery slope, as well. Because you’re introducing the idea of consuming an animal that might not have been previously consumed. And if that is something that is desirable after consuming that, that that might perpetuate the harvest of those animals, whether they’re wild or otherwise. So just wanted to put those two thoughts out there. Thank you.
IRA FLATOW: Thanks for that contribution. Andrew, any reaction?
ANDREW STOUT: Yeah. No, I think they’re both really great points. I think that, from the perspective of why vegans and vegetarians might not choose to consume these products– and touching back on one of the earlier questions and points that was brought up– I think a lot of people in the field say, if you’re vegan and you don’t want to try this product, awesome. Getting back to that caloric efficiency, we can maybe do better than a cow, but we’ll never do better than a plant on caloric efficiency. Because 1 calorie of a plant is 1 calorie of a plant.
So from an environmental standpoint, for people that are happy just consuming plants, then, by all means, continue to live that lifestyle. And I think that’s incredible and wonderful. It’s more, to Arye’s point, for the people who don’t make that change. And due to the fact that the trends– we keep seeing that the population on a whole is moving away from that direction, rather than towards that direction.
IRA FLATOW: Well, how many years down the road do you imagine that it’ll take cell ag meat to be affordable to the average person and in competition with the actual meat market?
ANDREW STOUT: I was going to plead the Fifth on the question. So it’s all you, Arye.
IRA FLATOW: Arye, you want to tackle that?
ARYE ELFENBEIN: Yeah. I mean, it certainly depends on the product that we’re talking about. Chicken, for example, is very different from when we’re talking about, let’s say, bluefin tuna. But I think, in general, where the projections have landed is that, within the next five years, we should be able to see production approach price parity.
IRA FLATOW: Wow.
ARYE ELFENBEIN: And even before then, I think that companies will be selling at a loss just to get customer feedback and improve what we’re able to produce.
IRA FLATOW: So many more questions, so many more phone calls. We’ll have to save it for the next time. Thank you, both, Andrew Stout, cellular agriculture biologist, in Boston, and Arye Elfenbein, co-founder of Wildtype, based in San Francisco. Thanks again for joining us today.