Burgers without killing? US companies get green light to sell lab-grown meat


Companies that create lab-grown steak, chicken and fish see a recent White House announcement as a signal that meat grown without animal slaughter is about to be legally sold and consumed in the United States. .

“We are focused on commercial-scale production, and for us that means competing with conventional large-scale meat products,” said Eric Schulze, vice president of product and regulatory at Upside Foods. , a cultured meat company, as the industry calls itself. The objective is to sell its meat on the American market within the year.

The traditional meat and poultry industry reacted strongly to President Joe Biden’s decision Executive Decree last month on biotechnology and biomanufacturing, which observers say could push federal agencies to allow commercial sales of meat from animal cells.

“It’s a slap in the face for cow-calf producers and farmers across the country,” said Don Schiefelbein, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association trade group.

The world’s first commercially available lab-grown chicken nuggets were sold just two years ago in Singapore. It is still the only country where people eat meat artificially grown from animal cells. But startups and a few US-based food companies claim to have ready-made products; companies in Israel are about to commercialize theirs; and China has signaled it may allow sales of lab-grown meat within the next five years.

Lab meat producers say their food can limit carbon emissions and agricultural runoff endemic to the livestock industry, virtually eliminate animal slaughter, and create meat genetically identical to the food that Americans are used to eating from cows, chickens, pigs and fish.

But farmers and ranchers debate whether the food should even be classified as meat.

“It should be differentiated somehow, so the consumer can tell if they are consuming something that was grown on a farm or ranch, or something that was grown in a petri dish. “said Lia Biondo, partner at Western. Skies Strategies, a public relations and lobbying firm that works with the US Cattlemen’s Association and other farm groups.

Read more: Is beef the new coal? Climate-friendly food is on the rise

How it works

In the marketing of alternative proteins, vegetable meat has shown the importance of labelling. Impossible Foods, which announced last year that its fourth-quarter retail revenue had soared 85%, has made a name for itself selling ‘burgers’, ‘sausages’ and ‘pork’ based on of plants. And like cultured meat companies, Impossible fought back against a group of ranchers who tried to get meat-specific terms banned from its labels.

Lab-grown meat is genetically meat, no vegetable protein packed into a patty to mimic the look and taste of beef or chicken.

The process of culturing cultured meat varies by company and type of meat, but the steps are similar: collect cell samples from an animal, place them in a bioreactor, feed the cells, and harvest them after they multiply in meat.

The starting cells can be taken from a living animal using a biopsy, and “banked” to eventually start several growth processes. Every bioreactor needs starter cells, so companies tend to keep a bank of cell lines on hand to draw from when needed.

Cells are nourished with nutrients, including vitamins and amino acids. They then multiply and eventually become the animal muscle and tissue that consumers call meat.

Photographer: Nicholas Yeo/AFP via Getty Images

Lab-grown chicken on display December 22, 2020 in Singapore, the first country to allow the sale of meat created without animal slaughter.

For California-based Upside Foods, which was founded in 2015 and bills itself as the world’s first cultured meat company, culturing chicken begins with a master bank of cell lines, which are thawed for about a week before being processed. enter a bioreactor, or “cultivator”. “Cells begin to duplicate and are fed a growth medium containing glucose, vitamins and other nutrients needed to keep them alive and reproducing, which usually takes one to two weeks.

Upside has patented cultivators designed to grow a whole cut chicken. Many other lab-grown meat companies use scaffolds, an edible surface where cells can reproduce. For Upside, differentiation into specialized muscle and fat tissue takes anywhere from a few days to two weeks, depending on the type of chicken.

After three to five days of formulation and packaging, Upside’s chicken is ready to eat. It doesn’t look like a thigh or a wing, but is biologically identical to farm-raised chicken meat and can be shaped into things like boneless chicken “breast” or chicken nuggets. Upside says it tastes the same too.

Upside down says his chicken can be harvested after as little as two weeks. A chicken living on a factory farm, on the other hand, is usually killed after six weeks at the earliest. While lab grow times vary by meat type and producer, companies like Upside point out that their process can be more efficient than traditional chicken.

While most of the more than 100 companies going into business in the United States are startups, JBS SA, the world’s largest meat producer, is investing $100 million in cultured meat. It acquired cultured meat startup Biotech Foods and has a cultured protein research and development center in Brazil and a pilot facility in Spain.

See also: JBS closes plant-based unit in the United States due to weak fake-meat sales

Federal regulations

The United States does not yet allow the sale of meat that is not cut from a once-living animal, but in 2018 the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture agreed to share market regulations possible. What it actually looks like is still unclear.

Last year, the Ministry of Agriculture published a advance notice of regulatory proposal on the labeling of cultured meat and poultry products, and awarded $10 million to establish a Center of Excellence in Cellular Agriculture at Tufts University.

An FDA spokesperson said the agency and USDA “will continue to work collaboratively to develop more detailed procedures to facilitate the coordination of our shared regulatory oversight, including the development of labeling principles. coordinated for livestock/poultry and seafood products made from cultured animal cells”. We cannot speculate on the timing of market entry.

The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service also said the agency was working on a labeling rule, but could not comment on a timeline yet.

Once the food is legal for sale, the FDA will regulate the collection of animal cells, while the Department of Agriculture will oversee the packaging and processing of final meat products.

“But they’re still trying to figure out exactly what this breakdown looks like, and I think it’s going to be awkward for companies when they have to go through it,” said Emily Broad Leib, founding director of the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic. .

Deepti Kulkarni, a lawyer at Covington & Burling LLP who has worked on food regulations, had a similar reaction.

“How will this work in practice?” she talked about the shared regulatory framework. “They have already signaled that this requires more detail.”

What exactly is meat?

A Dutch pharmacologist created the first lab-grown hamburger patty in 2013, at a cost of over $300,000. Startups are now tweaking lab-grown meatballs, sausages, steaks, fish and even foie gras, which they say will ultimately be competitive with farm-raised meat.

Read more: Lab-grown foie gras gets support from France and tastes delicious

An open question is how consumers will be able to tell the difference.

Photographer: STR/AFP via Getty Images

Cultured meat dishes are displayed ahead of an exhibition in Hangzhou, China, September 11, 2019.

The US Cattlemen’s Association wants terms such as ‘meat’ and ‘beef’ reserved for food from slaughtered animals, and has submitted a petition to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service with its arm full of the agency’s application, to ban the terms in lab-grown products. Although it has been denied, the agency is still deciding what this no-slaughter meat can be called.

The lab-grown meat industry largely agrees that its products should be labeled differently than traditional meat, saying customers will want to choose their meat for climate benefits and novelty. For many professionals, the preferred term is “cultured” meat, which they consider to be transparent but not unpleasant.

“We need to build trust with consumers that way,” said Denneal Jamison-McClung, director of UC Davis’ biotechnology program, at the school’s recent cultured meat and protein alternative summit.

To contact the reporter on this story: Maeva Sheehey in washington at [email protected]

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anna Yukhananov at [email protected]; Gregory Henderson at [email protected]

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