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Lab-based meats represent a groundbreaking advancement. These meats, also known as cultured or cultivated meats, are grown from animal cells in a controlled environment, promising a more sustainable and ethical alternative to traditional livestock farming. Despite their potential benefits, lab-based meats face significant regulatory, manufacturing costs and now political challenges. Several foreign countries and some U.S. states have moved to ban or restrict their sale. With all the ensuing publicity, it’s important for retail dietitians and all health and wellness professionals to be able to answer shoppers’ questions. 

First up: What is lab-grown meat?

Lab-based meats are produced through cellular agriculture, a process that involves culturing animal cells to create meat products. The process starts by harvesting a small sample of animal cells, typically muscle cells. These cells are then placed in a nutrient-rich culture medium that supports their growth and proliferation. Over time, the cells multiply and differentiate, forming muscle tissue that mimics the texture and flavor of conventional meat.

The key steps in producing lab-based meat include:

  • Cell isolation: Extracting cells from a live animal or a cell bank.
  • Cell cultivation: Growing the cells in a bioreactor, a device that provides the necessary conditions for cell growth.
  • Tissue formation: Encouraging cells to form structured tissue, often using scaffolding to guide their development.
  • Harvesting and processing: Collecting the grown tissue and processing it into meat products like burgers, nuggets or steaks.

Why lab-based meats?

Proponents of lab-based meats highlight four potential benefits:

  1. Environmental sustainability: Traditional livestock farming is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and water usage. Lab-based meats require fewer resources and generate less pollution. According to a study published in Environmental Science & Technology, cultured meat production could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 96%, land use by 99% and water use by 82%-96% compared to conventional meat.
  1. Animal welfare: Lab-based meats eliminate the need to raise and slaughter animals, addressing ethical concerns related to animal cruelty.
  1. Food security: With the global population expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, lab-based meats could provide a scalable and reliable source of protein. 
  1. Health and safety: Cultured meats can be produced in sterile environments, reducing the risk of foodborne illnesses and contamination. Additionally, it also may offer the opportunity to create healthier meat with customized fat and nutrient profiles.

Regulatory and market challenges

Increasingly lab-based meats face regulatory hurdles and market resistance. Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis and Alabama Governor Kay Ivey this month signed laws banning lab-grown meat in their states. The latest controversy about lab-grown meat seems to have moved into the world of politics; DeSantis has said that “the global elite’s plan is to force the world to eat meat grown in a petri dish.” Several foreign countries have also imposed bans or restrictions, citing various concerns.

  • Safety and labeling concerns: One of the primary reasons for regulatory pushback is the uncertainty surrounding the safety and labeling of lab-based meats. Regulatory bodies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Authority are still developing frameworks to assess and approve these products. Until comprehensive safety evaluations are conducted, some regulators prefer to err on the side of caution.
  • Economic and cultural factors: In many countries, traditional livestock farming is a significant part of the economy and cultural heritage. Policymakers may fear that lab-based meats could disrupt local economies, leading to job losses in the agricultural sector. In regions where agriculture is deeply ingrained in the cultural identity, there may also be resistance to adopting lab-based alternatives.
  • Lobbying and industry influence: The conventional meat industry wields considerable political influence and has been known to lobby against the adoption of lab-based meats. In the U.S., states like Missouri and Nebraska, which have large agricultural sectors, have passed legislation restricting the use of the term “meat” for lab-based products. These measures are often supported by traditional meat producers seeking to protect their market share.
  • Consumer acceptance: Consumer perception and acceptance play a crucial role in the success of any new food product. The April 2024 Consumer Survey out of Purdue University indicates that while some consumers are open to trying lab-based meats, others are skeptical or uncomfortable with the idea of eating “engineered” food. Regulatory bodies may be responding to these consumer concerns, opting to proceed cautiously until more is known about long-term impacts.

Bans and restrictions

Europe: In the European Union, regulatory hurdles are significant. The EFSA has yet to establish a clear regulatory pathway for lab-based meats. Additionally, countries like France and Italy have proposed bans, citing concerns over food safety, consumer protection and support for traditional farming practices.

United States: In the U.S., the regulatory landscape is complex and varies by state. Missouri was the first state to pass a law in 2018 restricting the labeling of lab-based meats. The law mandates that products not derived from harvested livestock cannot be marketed as “meat.” Other states, such as Arkansas and Montana, have followed suit with similar legislation.

Asia: In Asia, countries like Singapore have taken a more progressive stance. Singapore became the first country to approve the sale of lab-based chicken in 2020, viewing it as an opportunity to enhance food security and position itself as a leader in food innovation. In contrast, other countries in the region, such as China and India, have been more cautious, focusing on regulatory development and consumer safety.

The future

The future of lab-based meats hinges on several factors, including regulatory approval, technological advancements and consumer acceptance. To gain wider acceptance, producers must address safety concerns and work with regulators to establish clear guidelines. Additionally, effective marketing strategies that highlight the benefits of lab-based meats while addressing consumer apprehensions will be crucial.

Technological advancements will also play a significant role. Continued research and development can help reduce production costs, making lab-based meats more affordable and accessible. As the technology matures, it is likely that economies of scale will drive down prices, making these products competitive with conventional meats.

The debate over lab-based meats reflects broader societal questions about food production, sustainability and ethics. As the global population grows and environmental concerns become more pressing, the demand for sustainable protein sources will likely increase. Lab-based meats offer a promising solution, but their success will depend on navigating regulatory landscapes, gaining consumer trust and proving their value in a rapidly changing food industry.

While lab-based meats hold significant promise for the future of food, they face considerable challenges that must be addressed. Understanding the reasons behind the bans and restrictions can help supermarket shoppers navigate the complex landscape and work towards a more sustainable and ethical food system. As this technology evolves, it will be crucial for policymakers, industry leaders and consumers to engage in informed discussions about the potential benefits and risks, it will be important for us all to hope for a future where lab-based meats can coexist with traditional farming practices; and consumers can make the choice of which kinds of meats they want to buy — not for it to become a political statement.

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