Cultivated meat – also known as cell-based, clean, cultured, lab-grown or slaughter-free meat – is meat that is grown in a cell culture outside an animal’s body instead of inside. Using this ground-breaking technology, one is able to create a meat product without the need to slaughter the animal.
What is the difference between cultivated and cell-based, clean, cultured, lab-grown, or slaughter-free meat?
There are many names, but they all mean the same. However, the term 'cultivated meat' is one that reflects the criteria of neutrality and descriptiveness, also making it more appealing to consumers. According to Barb Stuckey, president and chief innovation officer of the food innovation firm Mattson, “the term ‘cultivate’ really works. A cultivator is where the cells are grown; cultivation is the process of allowing the cells to multiply; and cultivated can describe the final product, which is meat, poultry, fish or seafood.”1
How does the process work?
Within the development of cultivated meat, there are different production methods, which are used by leading start-ups worldwide. In general, the production of cultivated meat products is based on tissue engineering processes2: First, a very small sample of stem cells is taken from the live animal. The cells are cultivated in a nutrient medium where they are stimulated to grow into specific cells such as fat or muscle3. For example, muscle fibers can grow on a carrier scaffold4. The resulting product is 100% real meat with the same look and nutritional value as conventional meat, just without slaughtering animals and the potential for a significantly better ecological footprint. With a sample the size of a peppercorn, 80,000 burgers can be cultivated5. By growing only what is eaten instead of the entire animal inclusive of bones and skin etc., fewer resources are needed and cultivating meat is more efficient, completing growth in weeks rather than months or years6.
Is there any animal-suffering involved in the production of cultivated meat?
The procedure of extracting the stem cells necessary to start the process of cultivating meat is said to be painless7 or happens under anaesthesia8. For cultivated beef, one possible scenario could be that up to four biopsies are taken from each carefully selected donor animal in a single session every three months9. After the process, the animals “are free to roam the fields”10, as Mosa Meat puts it, but, of course, FOUR PAWS cannot know whether all companies share the same vision. Some companies even developed procedures to 'immortalise' cells, which means they could indefinitely continue to divide.11
The biggest welfare concern in regard to cultivated meat is the use of Foetal Calf Serum (FCS), also referred to as Foetal Bovine Serum (FBS), which is fed to cells as they undergo differentiation, where they turn from stem cells into specific cells such as fat or muscle.12 FBS is made from the blood of foetuses cut out of pregnant cows directly after slaughtering. The blood is drawn by sticking a needle into the living calf's heart without any form of anaesthesia until the calf is bloodless and dead.13 Studies carried out in Europe showed that 10-15% of cows are pregnant when slaughtered.14 Annually, more than two million bovine foetuses are killed worldwide for the production of FBS.15
After lengthy research, plant-based and synthetic Animal Component-Free (ACF)16 growth media have recently been made available.17,18,19 This breakthrough does not only avoid animal suffering but also makes cultivated meat more cost-effective and thus scalable. FOUR PAWS considers cultivated meat as an alternative to conventional meat only if the use of FBS or other cruelly derived animal components is categorically ruled out.
What is the benefit for the animals?
To produce cultivated meat, no animal needs to be slaughtered. In cultivated beef production, one single donor animal could replace 400 cattle over its lifespan20. Fewer animals mean more space per animal and thus better keeping conditions for the remaining animals. Cultivated meat has the potential to replace conventional meat products coming from animals which were kept in intensive keeping systems and therefore end the suffering of the over 80 billion21 farm animals slaughtered for human consumption globally every year.
What are the environmental benefits of cultivated meat?
There is an overconsumption of meat and other animal-based protein in industrialized countries and their consumption in developing countries is growing at a rapid rate: According to the OECD, an organization of mostly wealthy countries, the demand in the developing world will rise four times as much as in the developed world by 2028.22 According to recent studies, the global demand for meat will increase by 76% until 2050 (with a 2007 reference year).23 The increasing demand for meat and dairy products is having a detrimental effect on the environment and climate. Worldwide, 14.524 to 16.525% of total human-made greenhouse gas emissions stem from the livestock sector, of which the beef and dairy industries play the biggest part due to its methane emissions. Over 80% of all agricultural land is used to produce animal protein.26
As preliminary life cycle analyses27 have shown, switching to cultivated meat could bring substantial environmental benefits: For example, choosing cultivated beef over conventional beef, over 90% less land would have to be used and between 55% (if conventional energy were used) and 92% (if sustainable energy were used) less CO2 equivalents would be emitted. Although beef has the biggest potential for reducing land use and GHG emissions, all types of cultivated meat have better environmental footprints than their conventional counterparts.
Some additional expected benefits of cultivated versus conventional meat are:
- 82 to 96% less water consumption;28
- minimal bacteria on the final products minimises food waste and thus further lowers the climate impact;29
- no antibiotics are needed in the process of cultivating meat: The projected more than 100,000 tons of annual antibiotic use in animal agriculture by 2030 could be prevented;30
- mitigation of zoonotic diseases and global pandemic risks31
Is it safe to eat cultivated meat?
Cultivated meat is made through a process similar to brewing beer or yeast grown for breadmaking and other foods made by large-scale cell cultures. The actual production process does not take place in the laboratory, which is why the term lab-grown meat is not appropriate. Due to the production method, it is also possible to add other components, like taste carriers or vitamins or aim for a product lower in saturated fats. As it is produced in a clean environment and needs to go through rigorous safety regulations before it can enter the market, it will be safe for human consumption.
Are any antibiotics being used for the production?
The production process of cultivated meat does not require the use of antibiotics. In contrast, more antibiotics are given to farm animals in conventional meat production than to humans in general, which, in consequence, promotes antibiotic resistance in humans.32
Is cultivated meat genetically modified?
Cultivated meat is often confused with genetically modified foods because both are associated with laboratory work and biotechnology. Cultivated meat can be created from unmodified cells extracted from the live animal. Nonetheless, it is possible to cultivate meat also from genetically modified cells. There is a chance of genetic modification increasing the efficiency and advancement of cultivated meat research.33
Which companies are working on it?
While the pioneering cultivated meat companies were predominantly founded in the U.S., Israel, and the Netherlands, nowadays, there are more than 160 companies working in this field on every inhabited continent in about 30 countries. These companies are working on ground or whole muscle meat of nearly all animal species: from chicken to beef and pork, fish and seafood, and even exotic meats like antelope, kangaroo, or tortoise. Some companies also specializsd in oils and dozens more to create supporting technology. A comprehensive list of companies and what exactly they are working on can be found here: Alternative protein company database: manufacturers & brands (GFI)34
When will the products hit the market?
Having started off through a government-funded program, Dutch scientist Mark Post unveiled the first cultivated meat burger at a press conference in 2013.35 Currently, the only country where cultivated meat is already at market is Singapore, where Good Meat’s cultivated chicken nuggets have been available since late 2020, unfortunately still using Foetal bovine Serum; regulatory approval to use Animal-Component-Free (ACF)36 media for the production of its cultivated meat was only granted in January 2023.37
It looks like cultured meat could be next on the U.S. retail shelves: Upside Food, which has already been using ACF media since late 2021, was the first company to receive U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)38 approval for its cultured chicken in 2022,39 closely followed by Good Meat, whose cultured chicken was approved in early 2023.40 However, further approval by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)41 is still pending for both companies' products.
The regulatory pathways for cultured meat are not yet well defined in most countries. In the EU, approval could be granted in 18 months after application.42
Is cultivated meat also being created for pet food?
Does FOUR PAWS support the development of cultivated meat?
As an animal welfare organization, FOUR PAWS appreciates and supports any scientific progress which aims to minimize or eliminate the suffering of farmed animals in intensive farming systems and to reduce the number of slaughtered animals. Cultivated meat is poised to become a competitor of factory farming and possibly revolutionize the food industry. Although ACF45 growth media are already available and used by some companies, the use of animal components in the nutrient media or carrier scaffolds cannot be ruled out for the entire industry.46 FOUR PAWS considers cultivated meat as an alternative to conventional meat only if the use of Foetal Bovine Serum and other cruelly derived animal components as well as further factors compromising animal welfare are categorically ruled out. FOUR PAWS is closely observing the developments and whole process as future consequences for farm animals are still not predictable to the full extent.
Why is FOUR PAWS not focusing on plant-based alternatives only, as the most animal-friendly solution?
FOUR PAWS is an advocate of an animal-friendly lifestyle and encourages the reduction of animal-derived products and opting for a foremost plant-based diet. Read more about 'The 3Rs Principle' here.
Looking at the overall meat consumption, which is continuously rising, meat is one of the favorite food items worldwide and it is unlikely that everyone will switch to a vegan diet. As cultivated meat is real meat but does not require the breeding, raising, keeping, and slaughtering of billions of animals as livestock agriculture does, it might be a way to minimize cruelty to farmed animals and a way to support the end of intensive farming.
21 http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/QCL (Livestock Primary 2019); https://ourworldindata.org/meat-production