Now that two California-based companies, Upside Foods and Good Meat, have received approval by the FDA and USDA to sell their lab-grown chicken products in restaurants before going full retail, the U.S. joins two other countries, Singapore and Israel, as the first to allow commercialization of cell cultured meat products.
What do natural channel industry members need to know about this new and controversial technology?
One thing seems certain: cell cultured meat, derived from and produced with biological materials sourced from animals, is not vegan. Few think it’s natural and many question whether it’s humane or safe for consumers to eat, at least in its present iteration. Despite being touted by such chefs as José Andrés, some experts question whether lab-grown chicken is even chicken. The ability to scale, along with potentially significant environmental impacts and production costs, are also top concerns for industry and consumers alike.
“We know that one company is using genetic engineering to create and immortalize chicken fibroblast and/or myoblast cell lines. They select for cells that they can bulk up in a suspension culture. However, growth factors used in the suspension culture may come from sera sourced from bovine, pig or other animal sources,” Michael Hansen, Ph.D., Senior Scientist with Consumer Reports, told Presence News.
“If you’re buying chicken, you need to know if it was made with bovine or pork materials. How will consumers and those that follow special diets know if it’s not labeled?” Hansen asked. “Restaurants do not have to label.”
Countering cruelty free claims made by marketers of cell cultured meat, Hansen added, “The notion that this is cruelty free? They’re using fetal bovine serum derived from slaughtered cattle. They are, in fact, using a lot of material from animals. Let me be straight up clear: they are not cruelty free.”
In addition, Hansen raised concerns about the nutritional quality of the meat produced using cell culture technology. “Nutritionally, normal cholesterol levels in ground chicken average 45.4 mg/dL. However, cholesterol levels were reported five to 10 times higher in lab-grown, cell cultured chicken products,” he pointed out.
Safety, too, is a major point of concern for Hansen, who has been sharing his scientific expertise with Consumer Reports for more than 20 years. “People haven’t eaten these kinds of things before. We don’t know the downside and there have been no adequate health or safety studies conducted, to date.”
Josh Tetrick, CEO of Eat Just and Cofounder of Good Meat, feels differently about the safety of his cell cultured chicken product.
“So how do we do it?” Tetrick explained in an April 2022 interview with The Venture podcast. “We start with a cell. And we can get that cell from an egg, from a fresh piece of meat, or from a biopsy of an animal, so we don’t need billions of farmed animals anymore. Then we identify nutrients to feed the cell, since we need our own version of feed. And it’s not that different. It’s amino acids, vitamins, and minerals—stuff that enables our cell to grow. And then we scale up and manufacture it in a stainless-steel vessel called a bioreactor that looks like something you’d see in a microbrewery.
“And that’s how we make meat. That’s the process we used to make meat that’s served in Singapore today. That’s the process that we’ll be using as we build out larger facilities in North America, Singapore, and elsewhere. It’s cleaner, so there is little to no risk of salmonella, E. coli, fecal contamination, or other zoonotic diseases. Ultimately, we think it will be more efficient. The goal is to get below the cost of conventionally produced chicken,” Tetrick told The Venture.
“Because as proud as I am about launching with a handful of restaurants, that’s not the point. The point is to get to a world where the vast majority of meat consumed doesn’t require the need to slaughter an animal, cut down a tree, use antibiotics, or accelerate zoonotic disease. We’ve got to get to that world. And we’re only going to get to that world when we figure out a way to manufacture at scale. And we’re only going to get to scale when we figure out how to engineer this unprecedented bioreactor. And that’s why we’re putting so much energy into figuring it out,” Tetrick added.
“Yes, but what’s in the feed stock for the nutrient medium in which such products are grown?” natural products industry veteran and retail specialist Errol Schweizer asked.
“Billions of dollars of speculative investment have flowed into this space. The volumes of cell cultured meat needed to turn a profit for investors will necessitate millions of pounds or gallons of nutrient mix annually,” Schweizer said. “Will the feed stock be derived from cheap, plentiful but chemical-laden by-products of GMO agriculture, particularly soy and corn?
“And what are the environmental and health impacts of these feedstock raw materials? The industry will need to figure out how to dispose of the biological waste as a result of this process, as well. And because a lot of companies don’t want regulatory scrutiny beyond what already exists in the food industry, it’s going to take a lot of public pressure to get stronger labeling and federal oversight measures in place,” Schweizer told Presence News.
Max Goldberg, Founder of Organic Insider, questions the environmental benefits of cell cultured meat. “This is a very risky, unproven and highly processed food technology, and research published in May from the University of California at Davis shows that cultivated meat could emit up to 25 times more carbon dioxide equivalents than conventional beef. Yet, is anyone the least bit surprised? This is the classic playbook from the GMO industry – sell the public and investors on a great story but fail to deliver on the promises. Furthermore, no one has any idea of the possible unintended side effects of consuming this novel food product,” he told Presence News.
At the end of the day, will consumers accept such products? According to an international research group led by Ashkan Pakseresht from Novia University of Applied Sciences in Finland, consumer studies indicated at least seven factors affecting consumer acceptance of culture meat products: public awareness, risk-benefit perception, ethical and environmental concerns, emotions, personal factors, product properties, and availability of meat alternatives.
“Like any new food, the ultimate success of cultured meat depends on consumer acceptance,” the researchers said. “Environmental and ethical concerns stimulate a desire to preserve the environment and encourage consumers to accept more sustainable food production systems. However, it was surprising to learn that ethical and environmental concerns prompted consumers to be willing to pay a premium price for purchasing meat substitute (e.g., plant-based substitutes), but not necessarily cultured meat. The results indicated that the environmental advantages alone do not seem to be a strong motivation to compensate for perceived risks (or disgust impulse) of this novel technology,” Pakseresht told Food Navigator.
How will these products be presented to the public? According to Food Republic, a major hurdle has been determining how to label lab-grown meat in a way that would be transparent for consumers. “After a long process that has included debate and public feedback, the USDA has ruled that the lab-grown chicken will be labeled “cell-cultivated,” the magazine reported in June 2023.
“The USDA’s approval of our label marks a major step forward towards our goal of creating a more humane and sustainable food system,” said Dr. Uma Valeti, CEO and Founder of Upside Foods, in a press release about the decision.
At the end of the day, will grocers, distributors and others dedicated to the healthy lifestyles market and the natural retail channel be willing to sell cell cultured meat? As Bill Weiland, Co-founder of Presence Marketing, puts it, “We prefer to sell plant-based meat, not meat made in a plant.”
Steven Hoffman is Managing Director of Compass Natural, providing public relations, brand marketing, social media, and strategic business development services to natural, organic, sustainable and hemp/CBD products businesses. Compass Natural serves in PR and programming for NoCo Hemp Expo and Southern Hemp Expo, and Hoffman serves as Editor of the weekly Let’s Talk Hemp Newsletter, published by We are for Better Alternatives. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.