ABOUT "CULTURED MEAT"
The major challenges facing our agrifood system today are to provide enough food for the growing human population while protecting the planet, farm animals and meeting consumer expectations. To do so, FoodTech companies are working on a disruptive innovation: muscle cell culture to produce “meat” on a large scale without animal farming.
However, “cultured meat” raises many new questions related to its intrinsic characteristics, mainly in terms of safety and healthiness, with a subsidiary question: is “cultured meat” really meat? (1). Another set of questions concerns its extrinsic quality traits including potential ethical and environmental benefits. The remaining knowledge gaps are related to consumer acceptance, regulatory issues and the business model of the “cultured meat” industry.
“Cultured meat” is advertised as safe, since it is produced in a fully controlled environment, with no contamination from external sources. However, it is difficult to control everything and contamination may occur by accident. Consequently, the use of low levels of antibiotics may be required to ensure a safe product at the time of muscle biopsy or during cell culture (9).
Generally, we are not aware of all the safety and health issues related to “cultured meat” as it is a new product. Indeed, some unexpected biological mechanisms may occur during cell proliferation, such as genomic alterations or any genetic drift.
Private companies themselves have defined certain safety research priorities: (i) standards for safe residue levels of relevant inputs, (ii) input concentrations (e.g. growth promoters), (iii) recycling of media that may concentrate hazardous molecules, (iv) consequences of any genetic modification, and (v) evaluation of the characteristics of the final product, etc. (9).
Regarding nutritional value, although it is theoretically possible to mimic the composition of meat, it is not clear yet to what extent this will be the case, especially for iron and vitamins, mainly due to a lack of data (5). In addition, nutritional studies are needed to verify the digestibility of macro- and micro-nutrients of “cultured meat” in the human digestive tract. Indeed, it is well known that at identical concentrations, the digestibility of nutrients may differ greatly according to the biological tissue or matrix in which they are present.
THE SAFETY AND HEALTHINESS OF “CULTURED MEAT” ARE UNKNOWN
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The biological process of cell culture produces muscle fibers or possibly fine muscle tissue in case of co-culture of different cell types.
However, for farmers and the meat supply chain, “cultured meat” is not meat because meat is not only made up of muscle, but also includes the production process especially the management of the livestock. For the biologist and the butcher, there is a huge difference between muscle and meat just as there is between grape juice and wine. Wine results from the transformation of grape juice by a natural biological process (winemaking), whereas meat results from the aging of muscle, aging also being a complex natural biological process (3).
CELL CULTURE PRODUCES MUSCLE FIBERS, NOT MEAT
Although "cultured meat" is presented as virtuous in terms of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, only four scientific studies have been published, in addition to a few reports by private organizations. In reality, the lack of real data makes the studies unreliable. Furthermore, the published studies only consider the direct production of "cultured meat" in bioreactors, ignoring other sources of GHG emissions: cell harvesting, production of growth factors and materials, bioreactor production and cleaning, culture medium and biomaterial recycling and water treatment (10).
When scientists compare several protein sources, including meat substitutes, the environmental impact is highest for ”cultured meat“ due to the immaturity of the technology and the high energy demand for culture media and production processes (12).
In terms of water footprint, the erroneous value of 15,000 L of water to produce 1 kg of beef is unfortunately used as a reference. In reality, the water footprint of “cultured meat” is of the same order as the actual values for beef production (2). In addition, the release of molecules from the culture media in the environment cannot be excluded, which may affect the water quality (2).
Finally, while it is true that livestock use a high proportion of land, more than half corresponds to non-arable land, which can only be used by livestock, mainly herbivores, to transform the grass and fodder from these areas into protein-rich food (dairy and meat products) for humans (8).
THE ENVIRONMENTAL BENEFITS ARE STILL UNCERTAIN
Consumer acceptance is a complex issue that is currently the subject of investigation, mainly through surveys. Although many respondents would be willing to eat “cultured meat” once by curiosity, there is generally a minority who would be willing to consume “cultured meat”’ regularly, with the vast majority preferring to reduce their meat consumption (6), and many respondents still hesitating. Respondents not only expect “cultured meat” to be safe, tasty and have a low environmental impact, but also to be cheap and of high nutritional quality. The fear of consuming unnatural, less safe and less healthy meat is one of the main concerns for consumers. In many surveys, the potential consumer of “cultured meat” is likely to be young, highly educated, urban, familiar with “cultured meat”, and more concerned about the potential environmental and ethical problems associated with current livestock systems. On the other hand, rural consumers or French citizens worry about the potentially negative effects of “cultured meat” production on agriculture and the way of life of farmers in the countryside (7, 11, 6).
CONSUMER ACCEPTANCE IS STILL UNCERTAIN
Because of many technical issues, particularly in terms of safety or product composition (unknown until now), and because of some fears expressed by consumers, the "cultured meat" industry would require increasingly state control of its activity. In addition, “cultured meat” is considered to be a highly integrated supply chain from production to consumer, as illustrated by the partnership between different companies from production to consumption in the American market (7).
Due to the major investments and high-level technical expertise required for this production, an important question concerns the governance of the “cultured meat” industry. It is likely to widen the disparity between the wealthy who have the expertise (mainly in Northern countries and big cities) and others who have increasing food needs (for instance in Africa). The production costs of "cultured meat" are decreasing. But so far, many of the announcements have not been followed by facts, whether in terms of price, or date of arrival on the market. This is not in favour of consumer trust in “cultured meat”. The companies aim to disrupt the meat market, stable until now, through to a very effective communication strategy, with elaborate rhetoric based on current concerns for both environmental issues and the animal cause (4). In addition, these same stakeholders are very active in obtaining marketing authorizations, but “cultured meat” has only obtained this authorization in Singapore so far.
REGULATORY ISSUES AND THE BUSINESS MODEL ARE STILL A BARRIER
The "cultured meat" market is still in its infancy and is therefore uncertain: 1) it may be unsuccessful due to weak support from consumers and governments, 2) it may remain a luxury product, or 3) become, in the long run, a cheap product for the mass market in the form of nuggets or burgers probably mixed with other protein sources. This great uncertainty is mainly due to the lack of publicly available research on major issues such as safety or healthiness. Even the promise of “cultured meat” in terms of environmental footprint has yet to be confirmed by solid scientific studies.
1. INRAE | France
2. ISARA | France