A German cultivated meat startup has taken the first steps toward getting lab-grown sausages made from animal cells on supermarket shelves. In mid-September, The Cultivated B began early discussions with the European Food Safety Authority to eventually have its “hybrid sausage product composed of vegan ingredients, including significant amounts of cultivated meat” approved for sale.
While that step is still likely months, or years, away, it’s already a reality overseas. US regulators gave the green light for the sale of lab-grown chicken in June 2023, after Singapore became the first country to approve the sale of cell-cultivated meat in 2020.
News of this advance in food technology has some people wary of so-called “Frankenmeat,” which can look different from traditional meat and be produced much faster than it takes an animal to grow big enough to eat.
Is lab-grown meat made from cancer cells? And can it cause cancer in humans?
This is a primary concern for many who remain skeptical of cultivated meat, with some convinced it’s derived from fast-growing tumor cells. In response to a recent DW Planet A video, one commenter wrote that “lab grown meat is literally grown using cancer cells.”
In February 2023, an article published in collaboration with Bloomberg Businessweek pointed out that “normal meat cells don’t just keep dividing forever.” It stated that leading cultured meat startups are “quietly using what are called immortalized cells […] a staple of medical research [that] are, technically speaking, pre-cancerous and can be, in some cases, fully cancerous.”
But that’s not entirely true. Food scientists do use cells to grow meat, but they work with stem cells from a living animal or a fertilized egg. Using criteria such as taste and ability to divide, scientists select the best cells and immerse them in a nutrient-rich broth. These cells are then grown in large quantities in steel tanks known as bioreactors or cultivators, a process outlined by US-based nonprofit, the Good Food Institute.
“Similar to what happens inside an animal’s body, the cells are fed an oxygen-rich cell culture medium made up of basic nutrients such as amino acids, glucose, vitamins, and inorganic salts, and supplemented with growth factors and other proteins,” the institute, which promotes plant-based and cultivated meats, explains on its website.
Changes to the nutrients then “trigger immature cells to differentiate into the skeletal muscle, fat, and connective tissues that make up meat.” When it’s ready to be harvested, the meat can be given a familiar texture and shape and then packaged for sale. The whole process takes between two to eight weeks, depending on the type of meat.
And those cells are definitely not cancerous, according to Elliot Swartz, principal scientist with the Good Food Institute.
“You can’t equate immortality to cancer,” Swartz wrote on what was then Twitter. “While all cancers are immortalized, not all immortalized cells are cancer. Sorta like how not all rectangles are squares.” He said manufacturers “have a large incentive […] to use predictable, controllable, & stable cells,” and that excludes cancer cells.
The US Food and Drug Administration, responsible for food safety in the United States, has also refuted the claim that cancer cells are used to produce lab-grown meat and said these cells don’t even have the ability to form tumors.
“The claim that cancer or pre-cancerous cells are used in the process of cell-cultivated food is false,” the FDA said in response to a DW email. “The cells used in cell culture technology are selected for enhanced proliferative capacity in a bioreactor, and are not derived from or selected for the ability to form tumors in animals or humans.” This was backed by a recent report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO.
As for the claims that cultivated meat could cause cancer in the people that eat it, the FAO pointed out that “current scientific knowledge does not support the plausibility of human cancer contagion via introduction of cells even from other humans.” And the FDA said that, in any case, any cancerous or pre-cancerous animal cells — which may even be present in traditional cuts of meat — would be destroyed by cooking and our digestion.
Is lab-grown meat bad for the environment?
Traditional livestock farming takes a heavy toll on the planet. It’s responsible for around 14.5% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, according to the FAO. Producing 1 kilogram of beef, for example, will result in emissions equal to nearly 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of carbon dioxide equivalent, according to a 2021 calculation by Statista.
Livestock farming also causes land and water pollution, deforestation and ecosystem degradation. And while they’re alive, the animals consume a lot of water and food. The hope is that lab-grown meat will sidestep all that environmental devastation.
But in April 2023, researchers at the University of California, Davis released a preprint study suggesting the “environmental impact” of lab-grown meat production “is likely to be orders of magnitude higher than median beef production” when using current or soon-to-be-developed production methods.
Their study, which had yet to be peer-reviewed, was based on the necessary energy and the greenhouse gases emitted during all stages of beef production for both traditional and cultured meat. Since lab-grown meat manufacturing hasn’t yet been scaled up in a significant way, it was modeled on the energy-intensive biopharmaceutical industry.
Previous studies, however, have concluded that cultivated meat could significantly reduce the environmental impact of conventional agriculture. A January 2023 analysis looking ahead to cultured meat production in 2030 found it could bring the carbon footprint of beef production down to 14 kilograms of CO2. Though there are many variables, including whether renewable energy is used.
Is lab-grown meat as nutritious as conventional meat?
As with environmental impact, the answer to this question depends on several factors. Even though more research is needed, it’s already clear that a lot depends on the medium in which the cells are grown, the nutrient-rich broth.
In a March 2020 article published in the Frontiers in Nutrition journal, the authors pointed out that many of the “high-quality proteins, vitamins, minerals, and other important nutrients” found in traditional meat are not produced by the animal’s muscle — the part that we eat — but come from what the animal eats and digests.
“Unless specifically added to the culture medium and taken up by the cells, these compounds would be absent in cultured meat, influencing processes determining flavor, texture, color and nutritional aspects,” wrote the authors.
Wolfgang Gelbmann, a scientific officer at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), has said lab-grown meat would not necessarily be any less nutritious than conventional meat. In a recent EFSA podcast, he pointed out that cells in both types of meat will have a similar composition, as they will need to use the same micronutrients, vitamins and proteins as building blocks.
Gelbmann said cultured meat could also avoid the many potential contaminants found in farmed animals: feed, pesticides, additives, antibiotics and environmental pollutants. “Everything that is fed to animals that they consume, that they are exposed to in the environment, could end up on our plates,” he said. Those contaminants could be kept out of a sterile lab setting, if everything was done right.
Some researchers have even said cultured meat could be healthier than traditional meat. “Lab grown meat could be also an excellent functional food to cover specific dietary needs for people with various ailments,” wrote Greek food hygiene expert Daniel Sergelidis in the Biomedical Journal of Scientific & Technical Research wrote Greek food hygiene expert Daniel Sergelidis in the Biomedical Journal of Scientific & Technical Research.
“This is due to the capability of the technology to modify the profile of essential amino acids and fats, and to be enriched in vitamins, minerals and bioactive compounds.”
But with lab-grown meat production still a relatively small industry, it’s too early to know how the environmental costs or nutritional benefits will add up. For a clearer picture, more startups will have to expand beyond the experimental phase.
Edited by: Sarah Steffen