Does Lab-Grown Meat Contain Harmful Chemicals?
In 2020, Singapore became the first country to allow the sale of meat completely grown in a lab—in the form of chicken nuggets. If the media is to be believed, lab-grown meat could soon make its way to dining tables across the world. But what is lab-grown (cultured) meat anyway? Does it contain harmful chemicals? Is it safe to eat? This article discusses how we ensure the safety of lab-grown meat through regulation.
Growing meat in a lab does not involve using harmful chemicals. Lab-grown meat is created from cells taken from an animal’s body and given nutrients to grow. Facilities that culture these cells are sterile and follow strict regulations on the cleanliness of the equipment and environment—the likelihood of bacterial and chemical contamination is extremely low.
Lab-Grown (Cultured) Meat
How is Meat Grown in a Lab?
All animals (including us!) are made from cells. The concept of lab-grown meat is to take these cells from farm animals and grow (culture) them in a controlled environment where they can thrive.
This process attempts to closely mimic the way fat, muscle and tendon cells grow in an animal, giving the end product almost the exact texture and nutritional benefits of farmed animal meat.
We can use lab-grown meat technology to produce chicken, beef, pork, and seafood meat without farming and slaughtering the animals. That’s right, lab-grown meat involves no animal farming at all!
Benefits of Lab-Grown Meat
Growing meat in a lab has certain benefits over traditional farming. Apart from requiring 99% less land to produce the same amount of meat, the process is quicker and produces less waste. This equates to 45% less energy use and 96% fewer greenhouse gas emissions for our planet.
To illustrate this, let’s compare the requirements for producing 1 lb of lab-grown beef vs. 1 lb of farmed beef:
|Resources||Lab-Grown Beef||Farmed Beef|
|Land||Practically none||1.8 acres per cow (two football fields)|
|Water||74 gallons (2 barrels)||1,850 gallons (39 barrels)|
|Energy||14 KW-hr (energy to blend 2800 smoothies)||31 KW-hr (energy to blend 6300 smoothies)|
|Time||8 weeks||42 months|
Chemicals Used for Growth
Although we need to provide certain nutrients to the animal cells for them to grow quickly, this is done without the addition of any harmful chemicals.
Instead, fetal bovine serum (FBS) is used to provide all the proteins that the cell culture needs. FBS is a protein-rich mixture taken from the fetuses of slaughtered pregnant cows (yikes).
Some products require scaffolding to support the cells as they grow; these are made of ingredients like corn starch, plant fibers, fungi and gelatin.
Other chemicals like antibiotics—commonly administered to farm animals—are not used in the process of culturing these cells. This can help combat the worldwide threat of antibiotic resistance as a result of its misuse in agriculture.
In fact, lab-grown food products must adhere to strict regulatory requirements that scrutinize every aspect of their manufacture, including the safety of chemicals used.
Ensuring Lab-Grown Meat is Safe
From Laboratory to Table
In December 2020, Eat Just became the first company to have its lab-grown meat served in a restaurant. However, the company had to first undergo rigorous food safety assessments to show that they had a consistent and safe manufacturing process in place.
Because it was sold in Singapore, the Singapore Food Agency (SFA), alongside an international panel of food safety experts, had to confirm that Eat Just’s lab-grown meat was highly nutritious and safe to eat.
It was also in line with existing poultry standards, with the ‘chicken’ nuggets containing low levels of bacteria.
Following this success, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) agreed to come up with a regulatory process for lab-grown meat for human consumption.
This regulatory process combines their tools and knowledge, ensuring that all food products containing cultured animal cells are free from harmful chemicals and safe to eat—perhaps ushering in a new era of food.
Regulating How Meat is Cultured
For all meat that is cultured from animal cells, the FDA oversees the initial stages of cultivation, which are broken down into several phases:
- Cell collection
- Cell development
- Cell proliferation
- Cell differentiation
Culturing animal cells is done in large bioreactors filled with nutrients at optimal temperatures, so bacterial cells that bypass the sterile environment will quickly multiply inside.
Therefore, the most critical factor throughout the process is identifying potential contaminants within the cell culture, especially microbes and the harmful chemicals that they produce.
Other regulatory checks by the FDA include ensuring the quality of cell samples, analysis of the culture medium and inspecting changes in cell structure, function, and division rate.
They also review all the ingredients used in the manufacturing process, ensuring no harmful or toxic chemicals make their way into the final product.
Once the cultivated animal cells are ready for harvest, FSIS regulates the production and labeling of lab-grown meat products. Depending on the method of production, they are labeled as ‘cell-based’, ‘cultivated’, or ‘cultured’ to properly communicate their nature to consumers.
Due to being made under tightly controlled and regulated sterile conditions, lab-grown meat has a low microbial content and is ‘cleaner’ than farmed meat. Despite this, there are other safety concerns surrounding its consumption.
Other Health and Safety Concerns
Unknown Chemicals Used
Due to the industry’s competitiveness, virtually all lab-grown meat companies keep the exact chemical composition of the media used to grow their cells a secret. Although they must provide this ingredient list to the regulatory authorities, consumers don’t have access to this information.
Although authorities can guarantee that eating lab-grown meat is safe, the lack of transparency regarding the chemicals (and quantities) used prevents consumers and third-party laboratories from performing independent research to confirm this.
Cells are prone to microbial contamination because they do not have immune systems like animals. Antibiotics are also not used in this case. If a cell culture gets exposed to bacteria or viruses, it could take time for quality control processes to identify an infection.
This might mean throwing out a whole batch of cells, or worse, selling contaminated meat to consumers. Considering human error is possible, can manufacturers guarantee the safety and quality of lab-grown meat products?
Mutations in Lab-Grown Cells
Lab-grown meat involves the rapid multiplication of animal cells and tissue engineering techniques to improve the taste and texture of meat. Unfortunately, this also increases the risk of mutations in their DNA.
In medical stem cells, studies suggest that laboratory cell cultures can acquire mutations most commonly seen in human cancers. Of course, this is in the context of stem cells that will be used for treating human diseases.
Although this is unlikely to cause any health risks from eating meat (farmed animals are prone to growing tumors too), this might be a turn-off for consumers who are on the fence.
Nonetheless, the concept of eating animal cells grown in a laboratory setting is steadily gaining traction. It has proven itself to be a future safe and sustainable source of meat. Although issues with scalability and cost persist, growing public interest and funding in this space could help overcome them. .
Before we know it, eating lab-grown meat might be a matter of necessity rather than choice!
About the Author
Marjory was a junior science writer at FTLOScience from October to November 2022.