Cultured meat: Beneficial in theory, detrimental in practice

Imagine biting into a thick, juicy quarter pound cheeseburger. Sounds amazing, right? Now imagine that this burger isn’t actually made from “real meat;” instead, it’s composed of bovine stem cells. This new cell-based phenomenon is otherwise known as cultured meat. 

Although this may sound like a cruelty-free practice that lets cows off the hook, there is a catch. The liquid medium that cultured meat is grown in is called Fetal Bovine Serum (FBS). While the serum contains the amino acids, lipids, sugars and hormones that the cells need to grow, it is harvested from the blood of fetal calves.

According to culturedbeef.org, cultured meat is created by harvesting stem cells from a living animal, in this case a steer, and cultivating them in a lab through a combination of a liquid medium and bioreactor technology. In this environment, the cells form strands that then combine to make up muscle tissue, which is the primary ingredient in the meat we consume. When 20,000 of these tissue strands have formed, there is enough material to create an average sized hamburger patty that’s ready to be cooked and eaten.

According to an online article published by New Harvest, if a cow is found to be pregnant when she reaches the slaughter house, her unborn fetus can be removed, which automatically begins the process of asphyxiation and slowly kills the fetus. As it is dying, a needle is inserted into the fetus’ heart to extract the blood, which is then made into FBS. To be eligible for this procedure, the fetus must be at least 3 months old in order for their heart to be strong enough to puncture. This removal process is undoubtedly painful for the slowly dying fetus and is labeled as animal cruelty by many who are aware of the proceedings. While proponents of cultured meat would argue that the use of stem cells removes the presence of cruelty and slaughter, the creation of FBS most certainly qualifies as an inhumane practice and is a huge downside to the new trend.

Another negative aspect of cultured meat is the price tag that comes along with it. The first cultured meat burger was revealed by Dr. Mark Post for a taste test in London, in August 2013. This particular burger cost a total of $325,000 to make and the cost hasn’t improved much. According to The Genetic Literacy Project, a pound of cultured meat from the company Mosa Meats costs around $2,400 to make, whereas a startup called Future Meat Technologies can produce the same amount for $360. Although these are massive improvements, the amounts are still ridiculously expensive. While many companies promise a more competitive price within the next few years, it seems that any current product is likely to break the bank and commercial availability is perhaps decades away.

There is another pitfall that consumers are liable to fall into that has to do with misleading labels. As cultured meat is a relatively new concept, there aren’t any clear government regulations pertaining to how it will be packaged, labeled and presented to consumers in the grocery store. The main debate over labeling concerns whether or not this cell based product can actually be called “meat.” The fear held by many agriculturalists is that, by allowing cultured meat companies to use the term “meat” to describe and market their products, consumers may be fooled into believing that they’re buying an item that was produced in the same manner as traditional livestock commodities. As there is already so much consumer misinformation caused by incorrect labeling or false advertising, cultured meat could easily contribute to that confusion. 

While the concept of a cell-based product that eliminates the need for animal slaughter is an exciting one, it’s rather faulty and unpredictable when put into practice.