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What will it take for consumers to accept lab-grown meat?

Savannah Maher Feb 6, 2023
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Nicholas Yeo/AFP via Getty Images

What will it take for consumers to accept lab-grown meat?

Savannah Maher Feb 6, 2023
Heard on:
Nicholas Yeo/AFP via Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

Meat grown from animal cells could soon be on the menu at American restaurants.

Recently, the California startup UPSIDE Foods became the first to get FDA approval for its cultivated chicken. It’s now waiting on the greenlight from the USDA.

UPSIDE and other makers of what’s sometimes called lab-grown meat are optimistic their products will be available at a handful of Bay Area restaurants before the end of the year. The challenge now is scaling their businesses up and marketing this unfamiliar product.

“So you’re taking a sample of cells from an animal or fertilized egg, you’re growing those and giving them nutrients like vitamins or amino acids,” is how Amy Chen with UPSIDE Foods described the science behind cultivated meat.

What you end up with is muscle, fat and connective tissue cells that are just like conventional meat — but grown in a steel vat.

“And then you’re harvesting and cooking it,” Chen said, without raising and slaughtering animals, a process that accounts for some 15% of global carbon emissions, according to the UN.

“It’s a pretty substantial impact on land, water, greenhouse gases — not to mention animal welfare,” she said. That’s if these small startups can manage to scale up and produce at a similar rate as conventional agriculture.

But that’s a long way off, and government regulators aren’t the only hurdle.

“There’s such a thing called food neophobia,” said Erlinde Cornelis, a professor of Marketing at San Diego State University, who said consumers are generally wary of food innovation.

“Especially when it comes to meat, people can be more defensive,” Cornelis said.

Even the labels we give this technology can affect whether people are willing to give it a try. For example, “lab-grown” gives off mad scientist vibes.

“While at the same time [the term] could be appreciated in the sense that, would you rather have your meat come from a slaughterhouse or rather have it come from a lab,” Cornelis said.

Being transparent about how these products are made will be key to getting consumers on board, she said.

But the emerging industry also has supply chain and production challenges to work out, said David Block, a professor in the department of Food Science at UC Davis.

“I think it’s the goal of every cultivated meat company to reach price parity with conventionally grown meat,” Block said.

Right now, the production process is far too expensive for that. Block said if these companies can manage to scale up, they could help address growing global demand for meat, which is projected to double before 2050.

“You can’t just fill that void growing more animals,” he said. “There just isn’t enough space and resources to do that.”

In the short term, Block said cultivated meat will be a niche, specialty product for those who can afford it. Down the road, he predicts we’ll all have to get more comfortable with it.

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