A German farmed meat startup has taken the first steps toward bringing lab-grown sausages from animal cells onto supermarket shelves. In mid-September, The Cultivated Bee began preliminary discussions with the European Food Safety Authority in order to eventually get its “hybrid sausage product made from vegetarian ingredients, including significant amounts of cultured meat” approved for sale.
Although that move may still take months or years, it is already a reality overseas. After Singapore became the first country to approve the sale of cell-cultured meat in 2020, US regulators greenlighted the sale of lab-grown chicken in June 2023.
News of these advances in food technology has made some people wary of so-called “Frankenmeat”, which can look different from traditional meat and can be produced much faster than an animal can grow up to eat.
Is lab-grown meat made from cancer cells? And can it cause cancer in humans?
This is a primary concern for many who are skeptical of farmed meat, with some believing it is derived from fast-growing tumor cells. In response to a recent DW Planet A video, one commenter wrote that “Lab-grown meat is literally grown using cancer cells.”
In February 2023, an article published in collaboration with Bloomberg Businessweek reported that “normal meat cells do not keep dividing forever.” It says leading cultured meat startups are “quietly using what are called immortalized cells […] a major part of medical research [that] Technically speaking, these are pre-cancerous and, in some cases, can become fully cancerous.”
But this is not completely true. Food scientists use cells to grow meat, but they work with stem cells from a living animal or a fertilized egg. Using criteria such as taste and ability to divide, scientists select the best cells and immerse them in a nutrient-rich broth. These cells are then grown in large quantities in steel tanks known as bioreactors or cultivators, a process outlined by the Good Food Institute, a US-based non-profit.
“Similar to what happens inside an animal’s body, the cells are fed an oxygenated cell culture medium composed of basic nutrients such as amino acids, glucose, vitamins and inorganic salts, and growth factors and other proteins. “, the institute, which promotes plant-based and cultured meats, states on its website.
The change in nutrients then “triggers the immature cells to differentiate into the connective tissues that make up skeletal muscle, fat, and flesh.” When it is ready for harvesting, the meat can be given a familiar texture and shape and then packaged for sale. The entire process takes two to eight weeks, depending on the type of meat.
And according to Elliot Swartz, chief scientist at the Good Food Institute, those cells are definitely not cancerous.
“You can’t compare immortality to cancer,” Swartz wrote on Twitter at the time. “Although all cancers are immortal, not all immortal cells are cancer. Just as not all rectangles are squares.” He said manufacturers have a “huge incentive […] To use predictable, controllable and stable cells,” and this does not include cancer cells.
The US Food and Drug Administration, responsible for food safety in the United States, has also refuted claims that cancer cells are used to produce lab-grown meat and stated that these cells have the potential to form tumors. Doesn’t even happen.
“Claims that cancerous or pre-cancerous cells are used in the process of cell-cultured food are false,” the FDA said in response to a DW email. “The cells used in cell culture techniques are selected for increased proliferation capacity in the bioreactor, and are not obtained or selected by their ability to form tumors in animals or humans.” This was supported by a recent report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, or FAO.
As for the claim that farmed meat can cause cancer in people who eat it, the FAO reported that “Current scientific knowledge also suggests the possibility of transmission of human cancer through the introduction of cells from other humans.” Does not support.” And the FDA said that, in any case, any cancerous or pre-cancerous animal cells – which may also be present in conventional cuts of meat – will be destroyed by cooking and our digestion.
Is lab-grown meat bad for the environment?
Traditional livestock farming takes a huge toll on the planet. According to FAO, it is responsible for about 14.5% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. For example, producing 1 kilogram of beef would emit the equivalent of about 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of carbon dioxide, according to 2021 calculations by Statista.
Livestock farming also leads to land and water pollution, deforestation, and ecosystem degradation. And when they survive, animals eat lots of water and food. The hope is that lab-grown meat will prevent environmental destruction.
But in April 2023, researchers at the University of California, Davis released a preprint study that suggested the “environmental impact” of lab-grown meat production when currently or soon to be used could be of a greater order of magnitude than average beef production. Could. -Production methods should be developed.
Their study, which was not yet peer-reviewed, was based on the energy required and greenhouse gases emitted during all stages of beef production for both conventional and cultured meat. Since laboratory-grown meat manufacturing had not yet been scaled up in a significant way, it was modeled on the energy-intensive biopharmaceutical industry.
However, previous studies have concluded that farmed meat can significantly reduce the environmental impact of conventional agriculture. A January 2023 analysis considering cultured meat production in 2030 found that it could reduce the carbon footprint of beef production by 14 kg CO2. However, there are many variables, including whether renewable energy is used.
Is lab grown meat as nutritious as conventional meat?
Like environmental impact, the answer to this question depends on many factors. Although more research is needed, it is already clear that much depends on the medium in which the cells grow, a nutrient-rich broth.
In an article published in March 2020 in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition, the authors reported that many of the “high-quality proteins, vitamins, minerals and other vital nutrients” found in conventional meat are not produced by the animal’s muscles – part of the We eat – but what comes from the animal that eats and digests.
“Unless specifically added to the culture medium and taken up by cells, these compounds will be absent in cultured meat, affecting the processes that determine flavor, texture, color, and nutritional aspects,” the authors wrote. do.”
Wolfgang Gelbmann, a scientific officer at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), has said that lab-grown meat would be no less nutritious than conventional meat. In a recent EFSA podcast, he explained that the composition of the cells in both types of meat will be similar, as they will need to use the same micronutrients, vitamins and proteins as building blocks.
Gelbman said cultured meat can also avoid many of the potential contaminants found in farmed animals: feed, pesticides, additives, antibiotics and environmental pollutants. “Whatever animals are fed, what they eat, what they come into contact with in the environment can end up on our plates,” he said. If everything is done correctly those contaminants can be kept out of the sterile laboratory setting.
Some researchers have even said that cultured meat may be healthier than conventional meat. “Meat grown in the lab could also be an excellent functional food to meet the specific dietary needs of people suffering from various diseases,” Greek food hygiene expert Daniel Sergelidis wrote in the Biomedical Journal of Scientific and Technical Research. Of scientific and technical research.
“This is due to the technology’s ability to modify the profile of essential amino acids and fats and to be rich in vitamins, minerals and bioactive compounds.”
But lab-grown meat production is still a relatively small industry, so it’s too early to know how the environmental costs or nutritional benefits will stack up. For a clearer picture, more startups need to expand beyond the pilot stage.