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Future of Food: This genetically engineered salmon may hit U.S. markets as early as 2020
As concerns grow about the sustainability of meat production, some startup companies say they may have a solution: growing meat from animal cells in laboratories. NewsHour Weekend’s Megan Thompson visited two startups in California producing “cell-based meat.” This story is part of our "Future of Food" series, hosted by Mark Bittman and supported by the Pulitzer Center.
With all of the concerns about the ethics, environmental impact and sustainability of meat production, many people are looking for alternatives. By now you've probably heard about the surge in popularity of burgers made solely from plants – even Burger King plans to serve one in all of its restaurants. But could it be possible to grow what amounts to real beef or chicken in labs, with no animals killed in the process? And could such a process actually be sustainable? It may sound like science fiction, but Megan Thompson traveled to California where a few companies are working to get lab-raised meat on your plate in the very near future. This report is supported in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.
In 2005, Uma Valeti was an up-and-coming cardiologist in St. Paul, Minnesota. He'd just finished a prestigious fellowship at the Mayo Clinic and was treating patients with serious heart conditions, all while conducting cutting-edge research.
In my practice in cardiology, I started working on a clinical study that took stem cells of patients that had large heart attacks or cardiac arrest. And we would take those cells and inject them into patients' hearts to regrow the heart muscle. That led me to start thinking can you just grow food from cells. And once the idea got into my head, it was really impossible to get it out.
Valeti started researching the idea of creating meat in a lab. He'd always been bothered by the environmental impacts of meat production, and also the fact that billions of animals are slaughtered for meat each year.
It really started dawning on me that all the pieces of what we needed to do existed in the world. And we had to put it together for this application of growing food.
Valeti walked away from his promising cardiology career and moved his family to the San Francisco Bay Area to pursue the idea of creating what's known as "cell-based meat." In 2015, Valeti launched Memphis Meats, one of the first private companies in the world focused on the technology. The next year, Memphis Meats debuted its first product.
It tastes like a meatball.
Valeti's lab-grown meatballs take only a few weeks to produce. A beef cow, by comparison, takes around 18 months to get to market. Valeti believes his fast-growing meat could help address the issue of increasing demand. With the middle class growing around the world, global demand for meat will double by 2050, according to the U.N.
We're at a breaking point where I think if this demand for meat continues in the way it is, there just isn't enough resources for it. That's kind of why I think the crux of the whole thing requires massive innovation.
Valeti also talks about one day creating healthier meats, less likely to cause the heart disease he saw in so many of his patients. Today, Memphis Meats has close to 40 employees and is working on duck and chicken, which Valeti gave me a sample of.
Ok, here I go.
Go for it.
It's very tender. Yeah, there's definitely no way that I would, if you hadn't told me, that I would know this was grown in a lab and it didn't come from a conventionally raised chicken.
It tasted good – and even had the fibers you'd expect – but the consistency was a little soft. Turns out, growing animal cells is one thing; but reproducing the structure of fats, collagen and blood vessels that give meat its texture is a big technological challenge. Scientists are still experimenting with "scaffolds," as they're called, to give the meat structure.
And, there's another challenge.
When you say to somebody, here's a piece of meat that was grown completely in a lab, some people might say I'm not so sure about that. How do you get beyond that?
I think we should be realistic and the industry should be realistic that we just can't expect everybody to say "yes, I'm behind it." It's going to take time.
Despite the hurdles, Memphis has attracted more than 20 million of dollars of investment from big-name backers. Like Bill Gates, Richard Branson and the food giant Cargill. Tyson foods, one of the biggest meat producers in the world, has a minority stake in the company. Executive Vice President Amy Tu oversees Tyson's venture capital fund.
Our focus is on our traditional businesses, but we can't ignore the fact that the consumers are demanding different types of products. We want to be at the forefront of the future of food. So in order to do that, we may be looking at areas that may have been uncomfortable in the past.
Memphis Meats is not the only company now trying to make cell-based meat a commercial reality. In just the last few years, several startups have launched in the U.S. and around the world. The interest is spurred, in part, by growing concerns about sustainability, as meat production requires more resources than other foods. About one-quarter of the world's ice-free land is used for livestock grazing; about a third of our cropland is used to grow livestock feed. And, according to the U.N., livestock production contributes almost 15% of the world's greenhouse gases. About the same as transportation.
More people will eat meat tomorrow than they are today. And it's a big issue.
Josh Tetrick is the CEO of San Francisco-based food company Just, Inc. The company began launching vegan food products in 2013. Its novel items – like eggless eggs made from mung beans – are available across the U.S. Just, Inc., is now trying its hand at cell-based meat.
If there are so many issues with eating meat, then why continue to promote it?
People like eating meat, you know. It's just the way it is. If we can figure out a way to allow them to eat all the meat they want, just a different kind of better meat without all the issues, I just think that's the most pragmatic way to fix the problem.
So this is our early research lab for our cultured meat project.
Biomedical engineer Vitor Santo is Just, Inc's director of what's known as cellular agriculture. He explained, the process starts with a small biopsy of an animal.
It can be from a tiny piece of tissue, a small blood collection.
And the animal then walks away.
So in this container we have some of our chicken cells
The chicken cells feed on a cocktail of proteins, sugars and vitamins. The process also requires a substance to spur cell growth, often made from the blood of fetal cows.
Obtaining this "fetal bovine serum" is a huge obstacle to scaling up production. It's usually used in medical research — and it's expensive and controversial. It comes from slaughtered pregnant cows – which means for now, some of the cell-based meats made by Just, Inc. and other companies aren't actually slaughter-free. Just, Inc. is working to create a new, plant-based alternative.
We really want to get rid of it for ethical reasons and also because it's very expensive.
Using the current process, it takes Santo about two weeks to produce this.
So this is our ground chicken meat. Freshly harvested from the tank, the bioreactor where we are growing it.
The meat is used in Just, Inc.'s crispy chicken nugget. Another challenge here is the price — this nugget cost about $100 to produce. But CEO Josh Tetrick says the price is falling quickly and that he'll be ready to launch his chicken nugget soon. The issue now is that it hasn't been approved by the government. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture have agreed to jointly oversee cell-based meats.
We want to be true world leaders on this topic, as we have challenges feeding the world.
But the government has not yet decided how it will approve the products, inspect facilities, or what the rules will be for package labeling. And cell-based meat companies aren't the only ones concerned with that.
We're not against technology whatsoever. We want them just to play by the same rules.
Cattle rancher Kevin Kester says he wants to see the same government inspections of cell-based meat labs that traditional meat facilities get. And he wants it made clear on labels the meat came from a lab, not from a ranch.
We want a level and fair playing field to where labeling claims and marketing claims are accurate and it doesn't confuse the consumers.
Kester is a fifth-generation rancher raising more than 2,000 head of cattle on about 22,000 rolling acres in central California. Kester's also served as president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. He bristles at the environmental claims that supporters of cell-based meats make about the beef industry.
A lot of people say it's really resource-intensive. It uses a lot of water and a lot of land. What do you say?
A huge amount of that land is not viable for any other production.
Like the land on his ranch, which is steep and rocky.
So the highest and best use is for cattle.
According to the USDA, American cattle production only contributes about 3% of U.S. Greenhouse gas emissions, and Kester says, the industry is improving sustainability and efficiency through better breeding and feeds.
With less cattle, I can produce 33% additional pounds of beef because we've improved through technology and genetics what it takes to produce a pound of beef.
Do you think that they'll ever be able to grow a hamburger like this in a lab?
I think given enough time and research and development, yes. I do.
And you're okay with that.
Sure. It'll be a long time before the majority of at least the population of the U.S. would want to eat a lab-grown product.
Even so, some experts say we need to start getting answers now to questions about the safety of these new products.
This is a very disruptive technology, and what are the anticipated risks? We should be thinking about those now, rather than being reactive later on and trying to respond to them.
Barbara Kowalcyk is a food safety expert at Ohio State University and sits on the FDA's science board. Kowalcyk's not opposed to cell-based meat, but says there are a lot of questions the government needs to get answered before it approves the meat for market. Kowalcyk says, we can't rule out the possibility of food-borne illness. And, she wonders about the long-term health effects of the substances used to make the meat.
And those might be chronic health effects. So they might not emerge until someone has consumed it on a repeated basis, and so it may be years before we would actually be able to see a health impact.
The problem, she says, is that the U.S. doesn't systematically track the health effects of new food products after they're introduced. She thinks cell-based meats should be regulated as biologic drugs. Their approval requires a lot more up-front and follow-up research about their safety.
We haven't stepped back and said before we embrace this, let's look at the unintended consequences.
Memphis Meats CEO Uma Valeti acknowledges the concerns – but points out conventional meat is one of the biggest sources of food-borne illness, and it's often contaminated during the slaughtering process.
Because we're detaching slaughter from meat production, we are dramatically reducing the chances of contamination happening, therefore making food safer.
In the meantime, Valeti's charging ahead with his bold vision.
Ultimately this is coming. This is inevitable.
He's hoping to get the green light from the government, soon.
Watch the Full Episode
Megan Thompson shoots, produces and reports on-camera for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Her report "Costly Generics" earned an Emmy nomination and won Gracie and National Headliner Awards. She was also recently awarded a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship to report on the issue of mental health. Previously, Thompson worked for the PBS shows and series Need to Know, Treasures of New York, WorldFocus and NOW on PBS. Prior to her career in journalism she worked in research and communications on Capitol Hill. She originally hails from the great state of Minnesota and holds a BA from Wellesley College and a MA in Journalism from New York University.
Melanie Saltzman reports, shoots and produces stories for PBS NewsHour Weekend on a wide range of issues including public health, the environment and international affairs. In 2017 she produced two stories for NewsHour’s “America Addicted” series on the opioid epidemic, traveled to the Marshall Islands to report on climate change, and went to Kenya and Tanzania to focus on solutions-based reporting. Melanie holds a BA from New York University and an MA in Journalism from Northwestern University, where she was a McCormick National Security Fellow. In 2010, she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship in Berlin, Germany.
Mark Bittman is the author of more than twenty acclaimed books, including the How to Cook Everything series. He wrote for the New York Times for more than two decades, and became the country’s first food-focused Op-Ed columnist for a major news publication. He has hosted two television series and been featured in two others, including the Emmy-winning Years of Living Dangerously.
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