The rise of lab grown meat and food safety

Lab-grown meat, science fiction or healthy alternative?

Meat grown in a laboratory might sound like something from a scary movie, but it’s totally real – and this scientifically cultured ‘clean meat’ could be hitting supermarket shelves as soon as this year.

Also known as cellular agriculture, lab-grown meat is produced by growing muscle tissue from animal cells in a laboratory rather than harvesting it from livestock. Its advocates highlight its potential environmental, ethical and safety benefits compared to industrial-scale livestock farming. But Australian regulators are yet to come fully onboard, and there is a range of hurdles to overcome before lab-grown meat becomes an accepted part of the national cuisine.

How will this novel trend change the food industry – and will it meet our stringent health and food safety regulations?

How lab-grown meat is made

Plant-based meat substitutes have been around for a while, but lab-grown meat is the only product not harvested from a living animal that results in real meat, making it a potential disruptor of the meat industry like no other.

Lab-grown meat begins with the process of immersing stem cells from donor animals into a growth serum inside a ‘bioreactor’: a high-tech vat that provides the right conditions needed to turn the cells into edible meat. The process includes ‘exercising’ the meat using mechanical movement to increase its size and protein content.

Currently, three countries are very active in cultured meat research: the USA (mainly California), with companies including Memphis Meats, Modern Meadow, Hampton Creek and Finless Foods (specialising in cultured fish); the Netherlands with Mosa Meat; and last but not least, Israel with SuperMeat, and other projects.

Business leaders like Bill Gates and Richard Branson have poured millions of dollars into the lab-grown meat industry, envisioning a future where it has been accepted as a cheap, low-impact way of producing enough meat to feed the world.

Benefits and risks

Lab-grown meat eliminates the need to breed and slaughter animals. Starting cells can be taken painlessly from live animals, which is good news for animal welfare.

There is also the eco-friendliness angle. According to latest figures from the US Department of Agriculture and the United Nations, livestock produce around one-fifth of total global greenhouse gas emissions – more than all transportation combined. Culturing meat in bioreactors is energy intensive, but we can expect the cost to fall over time.

Lab-grown meat can also offer a health and safety advantage. So-called ‘factory farms’ have made headlines in recent years for being breeding grounds for dangerous microbes such as salmonella, listeria and e-coli. To make matters worse, the World Health Organization recently warned that the widespread use of antibiotics in these farms has been contributing to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Because lab-grown meat is produced in a sterile environment, the risk of infection by food-borne pathogens would – in theory, anyway – be greatly reduced. Growth hormones, pesticides, de-wormers and other unwanted ingredients that find their way into meat during the farming process could also be eliminated.

But can lab-grown meat be made 100% ‘clean’? Currently, most of the growth serum used in its production comes from animal sources including adult animals, newborns and fetuses, so there’s still the risk of contamination that way. Bacteria and other pathogens might also find a way in when the meat is processed or packaged.

Lab-grown meat could also be engineered for specific health and nutrition outcomes – adding extra vitamins or minerals, for example, or eliminating saturated fat. While this is likely to be a positive, it will probably require the introduction of stringent labelling laws so that consumers know exactly what they’re getting.

Naming rights could also be a challenge. Can lab-grown meat be called meat? There has been push back from livestock farmers who argue that the ‘m’ word should only apply to meat from living animals. And if lab-grown meat does take off, it is likely to have a negative impact on farmers, putting at least some of them out of business.

For health-conscious carnivores, lab-grown meat promises to be the breakthrough that lets them continue to eat safe, high-quality meat without harming the planet.

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20th April 2018
Kathryn Bush, Research & Innovation, Rentokil
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