Recently, the Food and Drug Administration gave an important thumbs-up to lab-grown chicken from a company called Upside Foods. Soon, you might be able to put lab-grown meat on your dinner plate.
Billions of dollars have been poured by investors into the cultivated meat industry, as it’s called, and the science is proving successful so far. The advent of lab-grown meat for consumers is the result of over two decades of development. Still, important questions remain. Can lab-grown meat be sustainable? Affordable? Healthy? And … will anyone actually want to eat it?
On Sunday’s episode of What Next: TBD, I spoke with Chloe Sorvino about the findings from her new book, Raw Deal, and her thoughts on the future of the cultivated meat industry. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Lizzie O’Leary: To understand lab-grown meat, you have to think of it like a building. There’s scaffolding—that might be protein from animals or plants—and then the cells, whether they’re chicken or beef or fish, grow on top of that, usually inside a bioreactor. Can you explain that process?
Chloe Sorvino: It starts off with harvesting these cells and finding the right cell that’s going to produce the best-tasting and the best-growing meat. The cells are taken from a chicken or a fertilized egg.
Once they have a bunch of cells to use, they then need to have those cells grow. Different startups are using different formulas for growth mediums, but they’re often a mix of amino acids, fatty acids, sugars, trace elements, salts, vitamins, some of the compounds that are in human food. The cells are mixed into this slurry, then they’re thrown into a cultivator or a bioreactor. There’s heat, there’s oxygen levels that encourage growth—and what they hope happens is that cells start growing really, really quickly.
Over two to three weeks, you then have these products emerging where the cells have coalesced around a scaffolding. Often the scaffolding is a plant-based protein, like a soy protein, itself growing up the scaffolding, taking up all the growth medium and then coming out in three weeks, two weeks as a formed muscle.
That’s completely fascinating. I mean, there’s a section in your book where you even describe one company that’s doing it like 3D printing, and instead of ink, they’ve got—what? Different proteins in the chambers?
Exactly, yes. The 3D-printing startup I write about, Miatech, has these “inks”: there’s fat ink and there’s a muscle ink, and the secret sauce to having them fill in correctly. This company is even commercializing the production process. They’re not making their own meat, they’re making the machinery and the plants and the infrastructure to make it in this way.
How big is this industry? Is it possible to even figure out what the universe of cultivated meat looks like?
In the U.S., you could say the market is zero because there’s nothing sold right now, and you can only get your hands on it if you’re an investor or friends of an investor who knows Josh Tetrick or another one of these folks who has the product coming from these really small pilot plants.
Josh Tetrick’s company, Eat Just, has lab-grown chicken available for sale in Singapore, but not in the U.S. yet.
There’s been billions of dollars invested in it across the world. A lot of that has been in the U.S. but a lot of it’s also in Asia, particularly; some in Europe too. The projections for how big this market can grow are really, really big, but a lot of these studies also are being funded by the companies or the investors. And so it’s really unclear.
One of the things that is interesting—with any kind of emerging technology—is to think about what’s driving it. In your reporting, where is the push for lab-grown meat coming from? Do regular people want to eat it? Are investors just interested in the returns? Or, is this a policy question of, well, there are environmental benefits, therefore let’s start this process. Where’s the demand?
Where is the demand? I write a lot in my book about how in the meat industry, in the alternative protein industry, and in this emerging cultivated meat, lab-grown meat industry, there’s a lot of manufactured demand and manipulation of demand.
There are folks that are really into animal welfare who are excited about cultivated meat. There are folks who are really excited about re-wilding and getting rid of all the landmass that the industrial meat industry has taken up to farm all the corn and soy that all these livestock are needing when they go to these feedlots. A lot of the super environmental folks are really excited about what cultivated meat can do.
But then there is also a lot of Silicon Valley money. I talk to so many different founders in the book about how they can get as much money as they possibly want. It’s shocking to hear them talk about how easy it is for them to get money for any of this, when there are so many other climate strategies or climate potential solutions that do struggle.
Proponents of cultivated meat tout a couple of things. First, that a lot of animals don’t need to be slaughtered to create the product. Second, because you don’t have those animals, there’s no need for carbon-intensive feed to be grown for them.
If lab-grown meat could take over the meat industry, there would be a significant reduction of corn and soy. That would lead to less water pollution, less soil erosion, pretty big deal. But with any of these alternatives, there are big trade-offs. People really still think lab-grown meat is this perfect climate food, but there’s nothing perfect. Lab-grown meat facilities take up enormous amounts of energy.
Right now, most of these companies aren’t able to build the plants that have their own wind or solar. There are several studies I write about in the book that show that while it uses less land and that’s a clear benefit, if lab-grown meat did use traditional energy sources when it’s at scale, it would be worse than industrial meat production.
Do we know if it’s any better for you, health-wise?
That is a can of worms. Anything that’s ultra-processed, it’s going to be extremely difficult to say that that’s healthy or good for you. While the label claims are one of the big areas that’s going to need a lot of scrutiny as these products are commercialized, what I will also say is that with lab-grown meat, but also with industrialized meat, it really, really matters what animals eat.
When animals are able to eat on the open range and pick and choose different foods, that completely changes the phytonutrients and the nutritional makeup of the meat. Omega-3s, fatty acids, all those really, really important things for our health. With lab-grown meat, you will never be able to have a system where there are phytonutrients. There are questions around all the different additives that are being used, and there’s also the long-term question of antibiotics that are used.
Those are used in lab-grown meat?
Yes. Even though there aren’t animals in confinement, there’s still a big risk of foodborne illnesses like salmonella or E. coli in many of these startup products. Some of them don’t use antibiotics, or claim they don’t. But many do. And that can drive antibiotic resistance, which is going to be one of the biggest public health threats we face in the next decades.
Lab-grown meat can cost thousands of dollars. Could you help me understand why cultivated meat is so expensive to make?
The first lab-grown burger cost $330,000, back in 2013. That’s for just one burger patty. There’s two big ways that this is expensive. The first is the growth medium. There’s a lot of money just going into figuring out how to make a cheap, sustainable growth medium.
The other part of this, which I think folks really don’t think about, is that the actual high-pressure-cooker machinery is really quite expensive, and these bioreactors have been typically only used by big pharma to manufacture drugs before. But now, all these lab-grown startups have been on the waitlist for years, trying to get these bioreactors made for them years off in the future, because bioreactors that are currently out there are really, really small-scale, mostly for vaccine production, like the COVID vaccines, and so that’s also why they’ve been in such high demand. But to make a lab-grown meat, you’re going to need them to be so much bigger.
Does this high cost translate into a product that is inaccessible for most people?
Absolutely. That’s why there’s so much money flowing into the expensive products. A lot of the investors are picking those startups over the ones that are trying to make more accessible lab-grown meat because they think because there is so much cost involved with production that those higher-end products are going to be the only way to really make the costs balance out.
I want to learn a little bit more about the slaughter-free claims here because, again, one of the talking points for cultivated meat is that animals do not have to be slaughtered. But I learned from reading your work that that is not entirely true.
Well, there are a lot of these formulas that are using fetal bovine serum, which is a devastating ingredient. Fetal bovine serum is one of those ingredients that has been used to facilitate these cells’ eating and growing, but it can only be obtained in one way and it’s draining the blood from a pregnant cow.
That’s pretty horrifying.
It’s not great. It’s quite antithetical to the entire premise of this no-kill meat and it’s just one of the other lingering questions that continues to exist as this gets commercialized, perhaps more quickly than it should be.
Do some companies say we can move away from this or we want to move away from this? Or does every growth medium require fetal bovine serum?
They’ve been moving away from it for years and they’ve been trying really hard, but it’s pesky. I mean, it’s been quite difficult to find other successful growth mediums that can be produced at scale with low costs.
One of the things that comes across in your book is how a lot of the attempts to replace U.S. industrial meat production, and that entire system, seemed to end up replicating it in slightly different ways.
In your reporting, was there was anything that made you hopeful that this could be disrupted, that there could be a different way to think about what we eat and how bad it is for our bodies, but also for the planet?
Who owns the systems of production has really dictated what the average American can access, full stop. The lab-grown industry is emerging with many of the same investors, many of the same institutional loan backers, many of the same corporations that they’re working with to create this system within this broader industry.
Fundamentally, meat consumption and meat demand needs to go down. The book talks about how there is a place for certain very specific ethical types of meat in the future, buffalo for one. Hunting is another example. But there is always going to be a place for a small subset of farming. I mean, there is some soil in this country and around the world that can’t produce food any other way or has been so degraded by industrial farming and chemical farming that they will never be rehabilitated unless there is a grazing rotational with hooves and manure doing the work. But it’s going to be completely different and we need to think completely differently about what our plates look like.
I have to admit that I interrupted my husband several times as I was reading this book to say, like, “OK, so we’re going to start eating buffalo.” You really did a lot of research in this book. You went on the line in these meatpacking plants. You did a lot of stuff that I don’t think a lot of people would do. Has what you eat changed?
I’ve taken a very hard look at how I eat personally. I mean, it was dark writing this book. It was tough. There’s a certain point where you feel like there’s nothing you can eat that’s right, and I didn’t want to feel that way because I also think it’s hard to put a lot of really strict standards on yourself.
I have really fundamentally changed how I eat, but also the systems that I’m supporting. I think it’s just as important to be supporting the financial institutions that are going to be supporting the communities that are going to help us all survive crisis in dignity. When I’m buying my food, I’m not going to supermarkets, as much as possible, because almost all meat at supermarkets is coming from these top four meatpackers and really industrialized supply chains.
I have a CSA just down the street in the neighborhood for monthly organic vegetables, and if I’m getting any meat, it’s through a food hub, which essentially brings together a bunch of different independent purveyors from a region. The food hub helps them figure out the logistics. We get meat from a food hub through a farm share. I really appreciate these financial systems that can get that dollar to actually be felt by that producer as much as possible, but that can also create an actually sustainable financial situation for the long term.