In 2013, the first beef burger cultured from in vitro stem cells not part of a larger organism was eaten at a cost of $330,000. By 2018, a state-by-state legal battle had already begun over the definition of the word “meat,” a measure of how far the viability of this sci-fi-esque protein alternative has come in a short time.
While farming and ranching groups introduced laws in more than a dozen states to restrict the use of the m-word on nontraditional alternatives, the amount of private investment in cultured meat and sales of plant-based substitutes already on the market soared ever-higher. With the USDA now assuming federal oversight of clean meat, the companies themselves are still struggling to overcome a few basic stumbling blocks — the use of fetal cow cells chief among them — before their cellularly-identical meat substitute can compete on supermarket shelves.
Matt Ball is Senior Media Relations Specialist at The Good Food Institute (GFI) — a D.C. think tank and one of the top funders for public, non-proprietary research into cultured meat. To get a clearer perspective of how this budding technology could transform the way the world eats and thinks about animal protein, he spoke with DOPE about everything from the inefficiencies of meat production at present to why using the word “meat” is a First Amendment issue.
DOPE Magazine: One of the most established benefits of cultured meat production is that it would cut down on the carbon emissions required to raise livestock traditionally. What other advantages might people not be aware of?
Matt Ball: I think a lot of people already recognize that there are problems with how we use animals to make meat currently. An animal advocacy think tank called The Sentience Institute released a poll in late 2017 that found two-thirds of respondents had discomfort with how animals are used in the food system, and that 47 percent of people wanted to have slaughterhouses banned. People in the meat industry couldn’t believe it. They had Oklahoma State University replicate these questions and found the same thing.
I don’t think people understand quite how inefficient using animals to make meat is. According to the World Resource Institute, it takes nine calories of crops to feed a chicken to get one calorie of meat out. The chicken is the most efficient animal out there. We’re growing nine times more crops in terms of calories than people are actually eating. We’re using that much more land, that much more water and fertilizers and pesticides … I think if people understood how shockingly inefficient this system of feeding people is, they would have a better understanding of just how severe the impacts are of using animals to make meat.
“I think if people understood how shockingly inefficient this system of feeding people is, they would have a better understanding of just how severe the impacts are of using animals to make meat.” – Matt Ball, The Good Food Institute senior media relations specialist
Big investors and corporations like Tyson and Cargill have entered the clean meat market recently. How have those shifts changed where the clean meat industry is headed?
You’re right, it isn’t just visionaries like Bill Gates and Richard Branson and Silicon Valley venture capital firms that are funding clean meat companies. These big companies are seeing there’s a better way to produce meat. In a Bloomberg BusinessWeek cover story last year, the CEO of Tyson, Tom Hayes, said, “If we can grow meat without the animal, why wouldn’t we?”
You have these really smart people who start these businesses to leverage their backgrounds to produce clean meat, but all their research is proprietary, so everything they learn and develop is intellectual property. Someone else who comes along to start a clean meat company [has] to basically start from scratch. What GFI decided is, if we really want this industry to grow as quickly as possible, we should create open access science, so anyone can go to this public information and get the answer, as opposed to constantly reinventing the wheel, company after company.
What are the biggest challenges that cultured meat must overcome before it becomes commercially viable?
There are two main challenges, and different companies are at different milestones in overcoming them. The main one is the use of fetal bovine serum, which comes from cows, as a growth media. No one who’s starting a clean meat company wants to be using animal products — their whole point is to take animals out of the equation completely. They have to develop ways of having a growth media that’s as effective or more effective than fetal bovine serum. This is a challenge, but every company is saying they’ll be doing this before anything comes to market.
The second challenge is, you have to produce meat at scale to get the price down. This technology was developed for medical purposes, growing human tissue and transplanting [it] into a person. When you’re making life-saving transplants, you aren’t under any market pressures to get prices down. If you’re growing to meet the global demand for meat, you have to produce with a much different process. When they say “lab-grown meat,” it’s really not accurate, because once it’s produced at scale, things won’t look like labs. It’ll be done in facilities that look like breweries, with big tanks we call cultivators, growing the meat in there.
What are the biggest challenges you’re anticipating for the regulatory pathway of these products when they do roll out?
Just the specific details of the regulatory framework … last year, the FDA and USDA announced that they would have joint oversight of clean meat production of beef, pork and poultry. The question is exactly how this will play out, and what will the different agencies say about things like labels. The head of the USDA, Sonny Perdue, has said he doesn’t want companies to feel like they have to go overseas to get a fair shake; he wants this technology to thrive in the U.S. When he spoke at the Cattlemen’s Association conference, he said everyone will have to compete in the marketplace. No one can expect the government to advantage them or disadvantage competitors, which is all GFI wants — that everyone is able to compete on a level playing field and honestly communicate with customers.
The labeling issue has started coming up in state court cases challenging clean meat’s use of the word “meat.” What’s GFI’s stance on how cultured meat should be labeled, and why that word choice matters?
GFI’s position is that the First Amendment applies to companies, and this is a long-standing precedent. It’s already a federal crime to mislead customers, and we agree. No one is saying Tofurky is going to be marketing their product as straight chicken; no one is taking their almond milk and putting only the word “milk” on the package to trick people. Everyone making these products is trying to differentiate themselves from conventional animal agriculture. People buy Tofurky or almond milk or Beyond sausage because of how it’s produced, not because they think they’re buying pork or chicken or cow’s milk.
The reason it’s important to be able to use words like “sausage” and “milk” and “plant-based chicken” in a compound, descriptive language is because that’s how people will understand how these products are intended to be used. If you said a “veggie disc” or “almond juice,” it’s actually confusing to people. It’s important to be able to use words the consumer understands with the appropriate modifier. Another point is, you need to use the “meat” words for public safety purposes. If people are allergic to fish or shrimp or pork or something, they can’t eat these products because they’ll have the same allergens in them.
The state of Missouri is the only state so far to pass a censorship bill that says you can’t use meat-related terms on labels unless it comes from a traditionally “harvested” animal … There’s a long precedent of courts striking down and throwing out similar actions against plant-based milks. GFI thinks for plant-based meat, it’ll be another First Amendment issue — that these plant-based meat companies will be found in courts to have a right to use these words. In terms of clean meat, it’s actual animal meat down to the cellular level. The USDA will be issuing federal guidelines that override any state laws, so it’s our hope that the USDA recognizes this is meat, just a different way of producing it.