FDA approves lab-grown meat as safe for human consumption

Two years after Singapore’s approval of lab-grown meat as safe for human consumption, the US has also recently come to the same conclusion. 

The US has approved lab-grown meat, which means that they can open the floodgates to the new food market. Essentially, many experts have said that these lab-grown meat products are more environmentally-friendly compared to traditional livestock farming. 

How does the meat grow in the laboratory?

To grow meat in the laboratory, the animal cells are first taken from the tissue of a particular animal. Then, the animal cells are placed in a tightly-controlled lab environment that is holistically designed for the cells to multiply and grow. Eventually, as the animal cells multiply, these cells differentiate into cell types, including muscle, fat or connective tissue cells. 

Moreover, by this stage, where the cells have differentiated, they are then harvested and prepared with the usual food packaging and processing methods [1]. So, how about its safety? The lab-grown meat products generally undergo the same safety requirements as other human foods. 

US Food and Drug Administration’s clearance 

Now the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently marked a key milestone for cell-cultivated meats as they cleared lab-grown meat products. This move can give much wider eco-friendly meat product selections in the market, especially for their citizens to consume, as eventually, these meat products will be available in different US supermarkets and offered in restaurants. 

The FDA clearance is a groundbreaking move as this is the first time that the country has accepted and approved the laboratory meats that were suggested years back. The ones accepted are from a California start-up company named Upside Foods which was formerly known as Memphis Meats. They were given clearance to use animal cell culture technology in taking living cells from chickens. Once taken, these cells are allowed to grow in a controlled facility to produce cultured animal cell food [2].

Moreover, the FDA evaluated the production of Upside Foods and its culture cell material and left with no further questions in regard to the safety of their cultivated chicken fillet–meaning they have met the requirements. Soon, the company can offer its lab-grown products to the commercial market once they are further inspected by the US Department of Agriculture.

Although the FDA’s approval is specific to the Upside Foods company and its products, this US agency is off to evaluate, inspect and work with other firms that develop cultured animal cell food and production processes. Additionally, there are plans to engage in discussions with multiple firms on various types of products that are made from cultured animal cells, particularly seafood cells. 

Uma Valeti, the CEO and founder of Upside Foods, emphasised that the FDA clearance attained by their company is a watershed moment in food history. It is a milestone that is considered a huge step towards a new era in meat production [3].

The food revolution 

According to the Chief Executive of the Vegetarian Society, Richard McIlwain, the UK-society is keeping an eye on developments.

“The Society notes with interest developments across the pond, where the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have deemed cell-based meat (grown from cells in a laboratory by Upside Foods) to be fit for human consumption [4],” he commented.

Many believe that this is another step in the world’s food revolution. As started by Singapore in 2020, the food cell technology industry has gained attention, and, according to the US FDA Commissioner Robert Califf and the Director of the US FDA’s Centre for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Susan Mayne, the world is currently experiencing a food revolution, and the agency is committed to supporting innovation in the food supply. 

In fact, the globally cultivated meat industry is backed up by more than $2 billion in investments. It is seen to play a vital role in building a more sustainable food system and mitigating climate change through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from common animal-based food production. 

When does lab-grown meat be available? 

With Upside Foods meeting the safety requirements, this manufacturer is one step closer to the start of commercial production. The company will also have to work with the USDA to get a grant of inspection and label approval.

However, on the other hand, the Senior Clinical Dietitian of UCLA Medical Centre and an Assistant Professor at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health Dr Dana Ellis Hunnes, has expressed her opinion that it will take a while before lab-grown meat can become scalable and affordable for the average person. The progress of cultured meat products in moving to the commercial market has been steady, [5] but perhaps, the next discussion is the nutritional contents of lab-grown meats – do they have the same health benefits as the normal ones? 

Nutritional contents of lab-grown meats

In terms of the nutritional contents of lab-grown meats, scientists are still studying its difference from regular meat. The lab-grown meat is said to have the same level of amino acids compared with traditional meat, but, of course, there is a wide range of differences in the overall meat composition.

Moreover, there is also a high possibility that lab-grown meat may contain lower levels of iron, zinc and B12. There is also a claim that this meat grown in the laboratory has a lower risk of carrying pathogens, including E coli, Salmonella or Campylobacter. As the meat is not sourced from animals that are usually packed close together in incubators, the likelihood of infectious diseases is low. 

Plus, meat manufacturers can easily control the contents of the meat. The cultivated chicken from Upside Foods claims to have fewer calories and less fat than chicken produced in the usual way. They also added that they are still working on bettering the nutrient profiles of their meats, but it will take time.

Furthermore, it is too soon to determine whether lab-grown meat can impact health or not, as many scientists say that there is no environment that is ever perfectly controlled. Hence, some unexpected biological mechanisms may appear.

Singapore was the first to approve lab-grown meat

In 2020, Singapore approved the world’s first “clean meat” as it did not come from slaughtered animals through lab-grown meat. The clearance was given to the San Francisco-based startup named Eat Just, which sells lab-grown chicken meat. The lab-grown meats produced by Eat Just are set to be used in nuggets 

Since then, the demand for alternatives to regular meats has been increasing due to consumer concerns about health, animal welfare and the environment. There are plant-based meat options available on supermarket shelves and restaurant menus, like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. But, Eat Just’s products are different as they are grown from animal muscle cells in a laboratory [6].

Breakthrough in the food industry

Next on the target list is the US, and the industry has high hopes that other countries should follow. In fact, there are many start-up companies that are trying to study and bring cultured meat to the market, as they offer more ethical practices than conventional meats. These include an Israel-based company named Future Meat Technology and the Bill Gates-backed Memphis Meat, which was rebranded into Upside Foods in 2021. 

[1] https://www.fda.gov/food/food-ingredients-packaging/human-food-made-cultured-animal-cells 
[2] https://www.theguardian.com/food/2022/nov/18/lab-grown-meat-safe-eat-fda-upside-foods 
[3] https://www.cnbc.com/2022/11/17/fda-says-lab-grown-meat-is-safe-for-human-consumption.html 
[4] https://vegsoc.org/media-centre/us-declares-lab-grown-meat-safe/#
[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7020248/ 
[6] https://www.bbc.com/news/business-55155741 

Photograph: tilialucida/Shutterstock
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