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What exactly is cultured meat and when can we eat it?

The fledgling industry — which generally prefers the name cultured meat — took a hurdle last week when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration indicated it considered chicken meat developed by Upside Foods safe to eat.

There are still some regulatory steps with the Department of Agriculture before the public can buy Upside’s chicken and likely similar products on the market, but the announcement was seen as a milestone for an industry working to develop cultured versions of other proteins, including beef, pork, duck and seafood.

So what is cultured meat and how do they make it?

Cultured meat is meat that has been grown from animal cells. On a cellular level, it is the same as traditional meat.

To produce it, companies take a sample of stem cells from an animal, often through a biopsy from a live animal or fertilized egg, choosing the one they think produces the best flavor or texture. The sample is often about the size of a pencil eraser.

Those cells are grown in vessels similar to brewery tanks that keep them at the right temperature, along with a mixture containing amino acids, sugars and other nutrients necessary for the cells to grow. The cells develop tissue, which gives the meat its chewy texture.

The process yields only meat – not complete animals with bones and nervous systems.

After a period of weeks, the cells are harvested and shaped into consumer recognizable shapes, such as chicken breasts or meatballs.

Are animals injured in the process?

Collecting the first sample of cells often does not hurt the animal. But there are times when a sample is taken from, say, a small shrimp that doesn’t survive.

And to help the cells grow, some companies have often used fetal bovine serum, which is harvested from fetal calves, but have said they may not do so in the future. Upside Foods has said it has developed a mixture to nourish the cells that does not use animal components.

What’s the point of growing meat?

Many people object to the killing of animals for human consumption, which could greatly reduce the breeding process. People who want to eat meat can do so without having to worry about the welfare of animals raised in the conventional meat industry.

There’s also an environmental argument: Proponents hope that producing cultured meat and seafood can help feed more people with a smaller environmental impact, as it is expected to use less land and reduce air pollution. However, the installations that produce cultured meat consume a lot of energy. The use of renewable energy can further reduce the ecological footprint of cultured meat.

Proponents also note that raising meat in a controlled environment should significantly reduce the need for antibiotics commonly given to livestock, in response to concerns about antimicrobial resistance, and reduce foodborne illness.

How does cultured meat differ from plant-based meat?

Vegetable meat does not start with animal cells. Instead, components from plants are mixed to try to mimic the taste and texture of meat. Beyond Meat Inc. for example, uses jelly pea protein, potato starch, canola oil, and other ingredients to make burger patties, sausages, and nuggets.

What was the reaction of animal rights groups?

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, applauded the FDA’s announcement. “We are thrilled to see ‘slaughterless meat’ become a reality,” said PETA Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman. But until it’s available, the group wants people to give up meat and dairy now.

What does the industry still need to figure out?

Industry officials say their next challenge is figuring out how to scale production, in part because of the scientific and technical challenges associated with producing higher volumes of meat. The past five years have been about proving viability, “showing that it’s meat and that it tastes exactly like what we’re used to,” said Upside Foods Chief Executive Uma Valeti. “This next phase that we’re entering is about scalability.”

How much does cultured meat cost?

Upside hopes to eventually sell cultured meat at the same price or below that of conventional meat, but that could take years.

Still, the industry has made progress. When Dutch scientist Mark Post first unveiled a hamburger made with beef from a lab on camera in 2013, it cost $330,000 to make. Mr. Valeti said in 2017 that Upside could make a pound of meat for less than $2,400, up from $18,000 in 2016. The company declined to provide more recent figures.

How do conventional meat companies view cultured meat?

Some traditional meat companies, including Tyson Foods Inc. and Cargill Inc., have invested in cultured meat start-ups. Meat companies are under pressure from consumers and investors to reduce their emissions, reduce their reliance on veterinary drugs and treat livestock more humanely. Officials at those companies have said they see cultured meat as another option to offer alongside conventional meat.

When can people eat it?

In December 2020, Singapore became the first – and so far the only – country to approve the sale of cultured meat. In the US, Upside’s farm-raised chicken has yet to clear regulatory hurdles with the USDA, which oversees the part of the process after the cells are harvested.

Upside has already joined chef Dominique Crenn, whose restaurant Atelier Crenn in San Francisco has three Michelin stars, to serve its farm-raised chicken, once approved.

How does it taste?

People who tasted Upside Foods’ cultured chicken in 2017, when the company was still called Memphis Meats, gave good reviews, saying it was tender and tasted like real meat.

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