Lab-Grown Meat Was FDA Approved. Now What?

The cultivation room at UPSIDE Foods, the first company in the United States to get FDA approval for their lab-grown meat. Image courtesy of UPSIDE Foods.

Posted January 24, 2023

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved the first lab-grown meat in the United States as safe for consumers. Now the company hoping to produce it, UPSIDE Foods, is waiting for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to approve its meat processing, packaging, and labeling process before it can begin selling to the public.

So, what exactly is lab-grown meat, and how will it change the way we eat? Is this the end of factory farming as we know it, or is it a pipe dream that will take decades to come to fruition? 

Bill Winders, a professor in the School of History and Sociology, is an expert on the global meat industry. He shared what we can expect from the lab-grown meat industry in coming years, the challenges it faces in scaling up, and some alternative options for sustainable consumption we can turn to in the meantime.  

 

What is lab-grown meat?

Lab-grown meat is animal meat grown in labs using starter cells, a growth medium, and large controlled, closed environments called bioreactors. Rather than using live animals to produce meat, scientists use carbohydrates and amino acids to make animal stem cells grow in the bioreactors. 

Lab-grown meat is also known as cell-cultured, cultivated, or in-vitro meat. It's different from plant-based meats, which are made from various plant materials rather than animal cells.

 

What is the most significant way you expect lab-grown meat to change our eating habits? 

For the near future especially, there will be little change. Lab-grown meat will be a marginal niche market.

Consumers who want more environmentally-friendly meat, such as those buying locally pastured and grass-fed beef now, will likely be the primary buyers of lab-grown meat. It's more expensive than industrial meat, but these socially-conscious shoppers are willing to pay a higher price for meat that is not produced on large-scale factory farms, feedlots, and slaughterhouses. 

Other than that, most typical meat consumers will likely still be guided by the price and familiarity of mass-produced industrial meat. 

 

Is this the end of factory farming, or will it take decades to replace the meat on grocery store shelves and fast food menus?

It will take many years to make lab-grown meat widely available to the public. 

The price of lab-grown burgers has decreased from hundreds of thousands of dollars per burger in 2013 to about $10 now. But there are difficulties in attempting to scale up lab-grown meat production, mainly because the growth mediums and bioreactors are expensive and in relatively short supply.

In 2020 in the U.S., about 34 million cattle, 131 million pigs, and 9 billion chickens were killed for consumption — lab-grown meat will not likely replace this production anytime soon. 

Read more: Food Goes Where it’s Most Profitable — Even When it’s Genetically Engineered 

 

How does the history of animal farming and meat consumption affect how lab-grown meat is viewed today?

Industrial meat production has a reputation for treating workers poorly, raising animals in horrible conditions, and threatening the environment. 

Concentrated animal feeding operations create water and air pollution, use large quantities of water and land for livestock and livestock feed (particularly corn and soybeans), and produce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. Lab-grown meat has the potential to avoid some of these problems, but the industry will also continue to entail a substantial investment of resources to scale up production. 

Other alternatives such as plant-based meats, "meatless Mondays," and creating policies to regulate industrial meat production can help to alleviate problems with industrial meat production without the heavy resource investment lab-grown meat will require.

 

What is the greatest challenge facing the lab-grown meat industry?

Scaling up for industrial production to make lab-grown meat widely available and affordable is the industry's greatest challenge. It will also face some marketing challenges in being "lab-grown," which might turn off some consumers.

 

Are there any unintended consequences of lab-grown meat we should look out for?

One potential unintended consequence would be increasing the demand for meat in general. Doing so could lead to more industrial meat production, which would increase the environmental threats and other issues associated with industrial meat production.

Bill Winders has been a faculty member in the School of History and Sociology since 2001. His current research examines the global meat industry, focusing on the production, consumption, and trade of meat in the world economy. 

Read more: Food Goes Where it’s Most Profitable — Even When it’s Genetically Engineered

Contact For More Information

Di Minardi

di.minardi@gatech.edu