Lab-Grown Meat Could Taste and Smell like "Conventional" Meat in the Near Future

Eric Sentell

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Filet Mignon. The King of Steaks.Chad Montano on Unsplash

One day, the server at your favorite steakhouse may ask:

Do you want cultivated or farm-raised steak?

You may buy chicken from the Cultivated section of the meat department before checking for too-good-to-pass-up deals in the Farmed section.

You might walk into McDonalds or Burger King expecting to eat a burger made from lab-grown beef.

Lab-Grown, Cultivated Meat Has Arrived

SuperMeat hosted a blind taste-testing of its lab-grown, or "cultivated," chicken versus a conventional chicken.

The "A" chicken was grown from chicken stem cells in a broth of nutrients in a stainless steel, temperature-regulated drum, or bioreactor.

The "B" chicken was raised and harvested from a farm.

Both samples were ground up and cooked in sunflower oil without any seasoning, sauce, or breading. The contest was as "chicken vs. chicken" as possible.

Michal Ansky judges food on Master Chef. She mistakenly thought the "A" chicken was the conventionally raised chicken because of its richer flavor.

When she learned she was wrong, she was so shocked that she insisted, "No, it's the real chicken."

What is Lab-Grown, Cultivated Meat?

Scientists harvest a sample of stem cells from a cow, chicken, pig, or another animal. Stem cells have the capability of becoming muscle cells, fat cells, nerve cells, brain cells, or any other kind of cell in an organism.

Then the scientists prod those cells to become muscle and fat cells. They nurture their replication and division, i.e., their cellular growth, in a bioreactor with warmth, oxygen, and nutrients. Eventually, they drain the liquid in the bioreactor, leaving only the mature meat tissue.

The meat tissue can be cooked and eaten just like any other meat. On a cellular level, it's identical to meat harvested from mature livestock.

Can Cultivated Meat Compete with the Real Thing?

The SuperMeat taste test shows that cultivated meat can look, smell, and taste as good as farm-raised meat.

However, lab-grown meat companies still have a long way to go before they'll produce marbled rib-eyes. It's easier to grow the muscle tissue in a lab than the fat tissue.

Cultivated meat must also reduce its costs. Mosa Meat introduced the world to the first lab-grown hamburger in 2013, at production cost of $330,000.

Those costs will inevitably come down.

Already, GOOD Meat sells chicken nuggets made from cultivated chicken. It's $17 for three of them, about 10 times the cost of a conventional McDonalds 3-piece chicken nugget.

$17 for three chicken nuggets is exorbitant, but it's a lot less than $333,000 for a hamburger patty produced with similar methods less than a decade ago.

Part of the high cost of cultivating meat comes from the nutrient broth necessary for culturing meat cells in a stainless steel vat. The broth is often "fetal bovine serum," a product made from calf blood that drug companies use for research and development.

But Mosa Meat has developed a plant-based alternative that could dramatically reduce the cost of the nutrient broth.

Researchers at Mosa and the 70-plus other alternative meat start-ups will continue working to bring down costs.

Can Cultivated Meat Satisfy Demand?

Some remain skeptical that science labs can grow enough meat to fulfill the global demand. Each year, that demand increases.

One analyst argues that companies will need 100,000-liter bioreactors to meet demand cost-effectively. Currently, companies like Mosa use 1500 to 2000-liter bioreactors.

Larger bioreactors won't work because the meat tissue produces waste while it's being cultivated. That waste would pile up and choke out the cells.

The size and scale problems of bioreactors sound insurmountable.

But I suspect companies can overcome it with a surprisingly simple solution: use about fifty 2000-liter bioreactors to equal the production of one 100,000-liter bioreactor.

Will Cultivated Meat Replace Real Meat?

Personally, I envision cultivated meat existing alongside "farmed" meat.

The global demand for meat has doubled since 1990, and it continues to increase each year. I think cultivated meat will be necessary to help satisfy the immense demand. I also believe many people will prefer cultivated meat because, arguably, it is more humane than animal slaughter.

If "cellular agriculture" becomes the primary method of producing meat, then we will dramatically reduce CO2 emissions and free up agricultural land for reforestation, absorbing more carbon dioxide. Many people who don't want to become vegetarian will choose cultivated meat for environmental reasons.

But I think there will always be a market for conventional beef, chicken, pork, and lamb. The market will likely change into a specialty market. The "farmed" meat will become a luxury item, like the filet mignon that you only order on your birthday because it's three times as expensive as the sirloin or the organic section of the grocery store where you pay more to get what you want.

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