The production process of meat-like products includes unethical practices
By Mohammad Abdullah
According to a report, 99 companies worldwide are now developing lab-grown meat components, services and end-products The growing business of food technology is revolutionizing the way we eat. In fact, some industry experts consider cellular agriculture the wave of the future. A growing number of startups are focused on developing lab-grown meat. According to a report, 99 companies worldwide are now developing lab-grown meat components, services and end-products (Global Market for Cultured Meat – Market Size, Trends, Competitors, and Forecasts (2022)).
One reason for this paradigm shift is that traditional beef production makes a lot of methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide — greenhouse gasses that contribute to global warming. According to Tom Philpott of Mother Jones (March-April 2022), the situation is so dire that many Generation Z and Millennials are held to have become vegans or vegetarians to help mitigate climate change and minimize animal suffering.
Researchers have been looking for alternatives to traditional meat production for some time. Singapore was the first country to greenlight the marketing of a cell-based meat product for human consumption. Although sales so far have only been in the form of “product demos” — most consumers aren’t willing to buy it because of the high production costs — lab-grown meat is hyped as eco-friendly, clean and healthy.
Yes, it would significantly reduce the number of animals to be raised and the amount of feed for them, which would divert hundreds of millions of gallons of water and hundreds of thousands of acres of land to produce food for humans. According to Briana Dodson https.brightly.eco), a 2019 study published in the Journal Frontiers of Sustainable Food Systems found that producing lab-grown meat could generate even greater concentrations of CO2 over time, as CO2 takes much longer to dissipate.
Yet, there are many companies worldwide that can’t wait for their governments to give them greenlight to get started. But that would be like putting the cart before the horse, because it’s a brand-new industry and the regulatory agencies need time to review the submitted documents related to production procedures and practices.
I retired from the USDA, FSIS, after many years of working in various positions. One of those was as a program review officer in the review and evaluation branch, where I conducted reviews of slaughter and processing plants nationwide. I can understand why the FDA and the USDA may be taking their time — after all, they need to carefully review all the information provided so they formulate the appropriate rules and regulations for oversight.
When these plants finally become operational, the government inspectors assigned there will need those rules and regulations to ensure that these processing plants are complying with the regulatory agency’s rules and regulations.
What is Lab-Grown Meat?
Instead of raising and then slaughtering an animal for meat, the cellular technology used to produce “lab-grown” meat, also called “cultured” or “cultivated” meat, allows us to grow only the parts we eat, without bones and gristle. It’s a complex energy-intensive process that will require sophisticated expensive machinery and very clean production facilities.
This meat process involves using stem cells from a food animal to inoculate fetal bovine serum (FBS), or a specially formulated growth medium — the blood of unborn cow fetuses extracted from their mothers after slaughter. It’s worth mentioning here that whatever is put in the growth medium will end up in the cultured meat. So, the stem cells needed to produce lab-grown beef will come from a line of cow cells, just as the stem cells needed to produce lab-grown chicken will come from a line of chicken cells. Slowly, the stem cells will begin to multiply into muscle fibers and, when there are enough of them, you’ve got a piece of cultured meat.
Cultured animal cells are alive, meaning that they can become infected just the way living animals can because the culture has no immune system to protect it. So, if the cultured cells become contaminated, they just die and must be thrown away. This, as Joe Fassler wrote in The Counter (Sept. 22, 2021) shows how important it is to maintain sterility in cell culture facilities.
This fact should be enough for Muslims to shun lab-grown meats, especially when it also involves such unethical processes.
Various reports have revealed the following information:
• Lab-grown meat’s prototypes are currently unavailable for independent technological, sensorial and nutritional assessment. The reason for this could be that the industry is new and therefore the exact production processes and inputs needed for large scale production are either unknown or not being disclosed. As a result, it’s currently impossible to gauge all the potential issues related to these products’ nutritional value that will be entering the market in the coming years.
However, based on the available information, it can be said that lab-grown meat currently differs significantly from traditional meat and that additional research is needed before cultured meat’s composition could resemble that of traditional meat. In contrast, traditional meat is considered nutritious due to the presence of highly digestible proteins with excellent amino acid, minerals and vitamins, especially B12, which is synthesized exclusively by microorganisms and then absorbed and utilized by animals. So, if cultured meat is to be regarded as a substitute for traditional meat, it must contain vitamin B12 (The National Center for Biotechnology Information).
• Despite the lack of any information on lab-grown meat food products’ nutritional profile, it may be possible to manipulate it so that it has the same nutritional value as conventional meat or even better. This depends on what is achievable when making lab-grown meat on an industrial scale and what consumers want from these products (Natural History Museum).
• Although the goal of producing lab-grown meat is good, this undertaking is still in its infancy and the relevant underlying science requires more scrutiny as regards potential safety issues. One particular concern is the genetic engineering of cells and their potential cancer-promoting properties. Information as to how the cells are engineered and kept growing is needed, and yet many of the companies claim such information is confidential and a business secret. The scale required for making lab-cultured meat available for mass consumption will be the largest form of tissue engineering to exist and could introduce new kinds of genetically engineered cells into our diets (Center for Food Safety).
• The lab-grown meat producer Vow Food says, “there are two million species that are available for human consumption, yet only four animals comprise almost all of the meat we eat — the company is on a mission to extract cells from all manners of animals to find new means to cultivate.” IntegriCulture, which is involved in designing new meat experiments, claims “that it can combine meats such as lobster, chicken, and beef to produce an entirely new type of steak” (Medium).
• The “Daily Mail” notes that even if the price is lowered, it isn’t clear that anyone will eat it, as a recent study revealed almost 75% of Australia’s Gen Z are “disgusted” by the idea of lab-grown meat.
Cultured meat, however, does come with a few major health benefits over conventional meat, especially given the pandemic. Because it’s grown in controlled conditions and without antibiotics, it could minimize antibiotic resistance, foodborne illnesses and other diseases transmitted by animals. The CDC reports that 75% of new or emerging infectious diseases in humans come from animals (The Beet).
Proponents of lab-grown meat tout it as a more efficient way of animal protein production and as opening a new era in meat consumption that offers all kinds of new flavors and varieties. But based on the available information, it’s not entirely clear just how healthy lab-grown meat will be and how its nutritional contents will compare with those of traditional meat. As this new production technology improves with time, the nutritional quality of lab-grown meat could be controlled by adjusting the fat and other ingredients. But whether consumers will like it as much as they like traditional meat remains to be seen.
Mohammad Abdullah, DVM, MS, MPH, retired as deputy district manager at USDA-FSIS.
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