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What Is Lab-Grown Meat and When Will It Reach Supermarkets?

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What Is Lab-Grown Meat and When Will It Reach Supermarkets?

Cultured meat, lab-grown meat, cultivated meat. Whatever you want to call it, it’s real meat. Only, instead of killing billions of animals each year, it’s grown in a sterile lab from a few cells. That might sound like the narrative arc of your stoner cousin’s self-published sci-fi novel. But actually, it’s already in motion.

In mid November last year, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent Upside Foods a “no questions” letter, which means it views the company’s products as safe to eat. The San Francisco startup takes muscle, fat, and tissue cells from fertilized chicken eggs and grows them into a product that is biologically indistinguishable from the flesh of a slaughtered bird. 

The company still needs US Department of Agriculture (USDA) approval before it can sell its cultivated meat domestically. But the move was a major milestone for the entire sector, which has been steadily growing for almost a decade. “It shows, ultimately, that this industry is one step closer to commercialization,” says Amy Chen, the COO of Upside Foods. 

Over 100 other startups flush with capital are creating everything from cell-grown beef to seafood, lamb, duck, pork, and more. Countless news articles have heralded its imminent arrival for years. And optimists claim that cultivated meat holds the potential to significantly reduce the consequences of factory farming: global warming, animal suffering, foodborne illnesses, and antibiotic resistance.

Yet, as the curiosity around cultured meat proliferates, so has the skepticism. Some experts argue that cultivated meat will never fulfill its promises. Cells can only grow so fast, there’s no established ingredient supply chain, and it will be astronomically expensive to build the kind of facilities these companies will need to grow tissue at scale. 

Will companies be able to produce enough affordable meat to disrupt conventional animal agriculture? Or will this fledgling industry never take flight? We asked the experts—and the answer, of course, is complicated.

How is lab-grown meat made?

To produce lab-grown meat, scientists take a sample of various cells—such as stem, muscle, and fat cells—from a live animal via a small biopsy, or from a fertilized chicken egg. “Then you select the cells that are best destined to grow well and to taste delicious,” says Chen.

Just like the animals those cells came from, they need a variety of nutrients in order to develop. Cells that make the cut are grown inside bioreactors, which look like big, stainless steel beer fermenters, in a nutrient-dense solution of ingredients such as sugars, amino acids, and vitamins, says Patricia Bubner, the CEO and cofounder of Orbillion Bio, a US-based company making cultured beef. 

The meat cells are grown in bioreactors. After a week or two, once they’ve finished growing, they’re harvested and the cells are essentially killed, says Larissa Zimberoff, a food tech reporter and the author of Technically Food: Inside Silicon Valley’s Mission to Change What We Eat. Right out of the bioreactor, they look like “pink slush.” That cell mush is then formed into an array of products. 

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