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Where’s the (lab-grown) beef?
May 30, 2023
Episode 934

Where’s the (lab-grown) beef?

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The rise of lab-grown meat and the future of food.

Americans love to eat meat. Last year alone, the average American ate 227 pounds poultry, pork and beef. But meat production comes with its own set of ethical and environmental consequences. So how do we get around these concerns? Dozens of startups say they’ve got the answer: lab-grown meat.

Growing beef or chicken in a lab out of a few tiny animal cells may sound like something out of a sci-fi novel, something that will happen far off in the future, but with nearly $3 billion invested in the lab-grown meat industry, that future may already be near.

“I think that that the supermarket, like tackling a Safeway or Kroger, I think that is easily five to 10 years away. The FDA has already given it a green light. They said it is safe to eat, which means that it is one step closer to being in a restaurant,” says Larissa Zimberoff, a journalist and author of “Technically Food: Inside Silicon Valley’s Mission to Change What We Eat.”

On the show today, Zimberoff explains how meat is grown in a lab, why companies are banking on it as a solution to our omnivore’s dilemma, and the challenges that lie ahead for the growing industry. Plus, is lab-grown food here to stay?

In the News Fix: We have a deal on the debt ceiling. After weeks of back and forth, President Joe Biden and House Republicans have struck a tentative deal to raise the debt limit. We get into what it all means, and why the negotiating might not be over.

Later, a listener weighs in on retailer return policies, and our beloved intern gets creative with his answer to the Make Me Smart question.

Here’s everything we talked about today:

We love to hear from you. Send us your questions and comments to makemesmart@marketplace.org or leave us a voicemail at 508-U-B-SMART.

Make Me Smart May 30, 2023 Transcript

Note: Marketplace podcasts are meant to be heard, with emphasis, tone and audio elements a transcript can’t capture. Transcripts are generated using a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting it.

Kimberly Adams 

Hello, I’m Kimberly Adams. Welcome back to make me smart, where none of us is as smart as all of us.

Kai Ryssdal 

I’m Kai Ryssdal. It is Tuesday, the 30th of May today. And since it’s Tuesday that means one topic for the whole 25 minutes, half an hour, 35 minutes, whatever, that we’re gonna talk about today. We’re talking meat today. Not what you might have had on the grill, probably, almost certainly. But meat meat that is cultivated, cultured meat, meat grown in a lab in the vernacular I suppose one could say.

Kimberly Adams 

Yeah, the lab grown meat phenomenon. And we know that this sounds like something out of a sci fi novel. But there really are dozens of startups and billions of dollars going towards making beef, chicken and fish in a lab. And the whole idea is to produce meat without killing animals, especially the cute ones, while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions. So today, we’re going to get into the rise of lab grown meat. And here to make a smart is Larissa Zimberoff she’s a freelance journalist and author of the book “Technically Food: inside Silicon Valley’s mission to change what we eat.” Welcome to the show.

Larissa Zimberoff 

Thanks for having me. Excited to talk about this. And first of all, there’s over 100 startups making cultured meat today.

Kimberly Adams 

Oh, wow. So it’s growing by the day seems. So then what exactly are we talking about when we do, sort of break down which companies are into cultured meat? What is it and how is it made?

Larissa Zimberoff 

So cultured meat, if if I were to say to one of the startups that wasn’t actually meat, they would correct me and say this is identical to meat. So they take meat cells from an animal, a chicken… for chicken, they take an egg egg cells. For a cow, they take beef cells, they take a biopsy. And they get cells and then they grow them in the lab. To grow them in the lab they need cultured media or serum that has growth hormones in it that just like our body needs food and micronutrients and macronutrients to grow hormones like insulin, an animal needs the same thing, and these cells are since they’re the same as an animal, in the lab they’re going to need those those ingredients to grow. Eventually, they might take it if they’re making chicken which may be the first thing we see the market, chicken is going to be turned into a chicken nugget or maybe a chicken breast. Something kind of easier than say a steak. And then they’ll form it into that shape and sell it in the supermarket one day.

Kai Ryssdal 

What’s the difference then between cultured or lab grown… And is that pejorative by the way? Lab grown?

Larissa Zimberoff 

I personally don’t think lab grown is pejorative. I know that the industry is looking to call it “cultivated.” So it’s it’s been called a bunch of different things Kai so it’s good that you point this out. Sometimes they called it clean meat, which didn’t get much traction because then we were calling other dirty, but lab grown or in vitro

Kai Ryssdal 

Oh no no no. That’s a whole we’re not doing that. I will go with cultivated and I need… for those who aren’t clear as I wasn’t really until I started thinking about this. The difference between cultivated meat and like the impossible burgers you can get in the store today.

Larissa Zimberoff 

Night and day. So one is plant. So it’s soy protein or potato or like the Beyond Meat burger is pea protein. They’re even using chickpea. So those are plant based and it’s all plant based ingredients. So coconut oil or pea, or potato binders, things you might find in other foods in the supermarket today. And cultivated meat, is like I said, it’s going going to be cells from a cow that have been grown in the lab or in production facilities in steel tanks called bioreactors.

Kimberly Adams 

And you said that chicken was probably going to be the first to market, but how close are we? Like when are we going to start seeing these things in our supermarkets?

Larissa Zimberoff 

Great question. I think the supermarket like tackling Safeway or Kroger’s, depending on where you live, that’s, I think, easily 5 to 10 years away. But the FDA has given it a green light, they’ve said it’s safe to eat, which means it’s one step closer to actually being in a restaurant. So we still are waiting for the USDA to give its approval, but we may see it in fine dining establishments like Atelier Crenn, which is Dominique Crenn’s restaurant in San Francisco. That’s where we’re going to see it first. It is for sale in Singapore. If anybody wants to fly to Singapore, they can get a chicken satay or a chicken nugget. And that’s from a company called Eat Just

Kai Ryssdal 

Have you had it?

Larissa Zimberoff 

I have.

Kai Ryssdal 

And?

Larissa Zimberoff 

I’ve had pretty much everything. The chicken that I’ve had, has the texture… The closest texture I’ve gotten so far is from Upside Foods, which is located in Emeryville, California, in Northern California. And it really has the texture Kai, and Kimberly. It’s like, you know, it has the fibers and that kind of dense chew that your teeth are expecting. I felt that missed a little bit of the flavor, or maybe the fat. But if you had it in something, you would never know. But that being said, like some of these plant proteins that I’ve had are just as you know, compelling and, and easy to like forget that you’re eating plants versus meat.

Kimberly Adams 

Yeah, I’m thinking of all these things that we eat, especially like in fast food chains and stuff where it’s like chunks of chicken or chicken in soup or chicken on salad or heavily seasoned chicken in tacos and things like that. Like you probably really wouldn’t notice.

Larissa Zimberoff 

You would have no idea. I actually ate at a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley this weekend, and everything was vegan. And I had a jackfruit burrito ,I had, you know, just an carne asada taco. I never would have known that it was vegan.

Kai Ryssdal  

Can we talk scale here for a minute? Much like, like renewable energy sources are going to have a scale challenge. I imagine this is going to have a scale challenge. And do you suppose that like, in our lifetimes, let’s pick yours because you’re not as old as I am, we will see this on equal footing with with regular animal meat.

Larissa Zimberoff 

I do not think we will see it on a regular footing with animal meat. And I’m probably not as young as maybe you think I am. But, but I think

Kimberly Adams 

We just say thank you.

Kai Ryssdal 

Now I have to Google. No I’m just kidding.

Larissa Zimberoff 

I think Gen Z or Gen Alpha, the next generations maybe

Kai Ryssdal 

Wait, is that what they’re calling it?! Gen Alpha?!

Larissa Zimberoff 

I believe so.

Kimberly Adams 

Yes that’s right. Gen Alpha. Those are the babies.

Kai Ryssdal 

Anyway, go ahead. Sorry.

Larissa Zimberoff 

Back to the question which is will we see this in, in our lifetime get to the cost and scale the industrial meat has today. I mean, if we think how long that industry has had to get to where it is to so, just dirt cheap, right? You know, you can get a pound of chicken for $6. We’re not going to see that for decades, because there’s many things that this this industry has to solve for. They have to solve for this growth serum right? Which is these like hormones and ingredients that are going to grow the cells. And you know, initially this this industry has started with like pharma grade ingredients, which is super, super expensive. I mean, we know we know what it costs to go to the drugstore. But they haven’t quite made it to food grade and food isn’t, it isn’t a an industry that pays well, right? We don’t pay our makers well. It’s dirt cheap to buy food today. And that doesn’t translate to to, you know, profits very quickly. Also the technology to make the cells, to grow the cells to like, you know, there’s lots of intricacy here. Essentially, they’re, they’re using the same technology that we use to make vaccines. And no one’s been doing this at foodgrade, at food scale. So all those things have to kind of, they have to move they have to change, they have to innovate really quickly to get any make any kind of dent in the like $300 trillion dollar meat industry.

Kimberly Adams 

You know what you’re describing there, using pharmaceutical grade equipment to make a chicken nugget and all of these baths of proteins and cultures and things like that. All of that is very energy intensive. And this whole cultivated meat idea was supposed to be a way to help address climate change. And we saw this study from UC Davis that suggests it may even be more harmful to the environment to make meat this way than traditional meat production. How do we get to sustainability on this? Or is it even going to be possible?

Larissa Zimberoff 

Yeah, so that’s this innovation that is needed both in the production facility so the bioreactors, the energy needed, because you know, the energy usage is probably the highest hit that they have, that they will have. Water usage may be a little bit. And then they need ingredients, crops, just like animals need to eat crops, this lab grown meat is going to need crops. But the biggest things that they’re going to need to worry about to to make an impact on the climate, to help the climate is getting people to eat their meat instead of industrial grade meat. They have to get the cost down. To get the cost down, they need to innovate rapidly, they need… there’s already $3 billion invested in this industry, they probably say they need, I don’t know, 10 times that.

Kai Ryssdal 

So this is… one answer to the question I’m about to ask you is “Kai you need to get over yourself.” But the other is that it’s a real challenge that they’re thinking about. And the question is, how do you get over the ick factor? Wait Kimberly you were gonna, you were gonna tell me to get over myself.

Kimberly Adams 

Do you have an ick factor?

Kai Ryssdal 

I have I have a tiny little bit of an ick factor. Yeah.

Kimberly Adams 

Why?

Kimberly Adams 

I don’t know.

Kimberly Adams 

It’s actually in a chicken chicken nugget as is.

Kai Ryssdal 

I do. But I’ve been… I’ve known that since I was old enough to figure out which end of the chicken to eat right? I mean, you know, since I was I was a little kid. And and, and now it’s from a lab?

Kimberly Adams 

I mean, so is most of the stuff we eat. Anyway Larissa go ahead.

Larissa Zimberoff 

Yeah, food science has been in our food like has been… they’ve had their hands and our food since the 70s. There is an ick factor. But people are so they’re so separated from how their food is produced and created and grown, and that people actually don’t that I don’t think it’s the ick factor that makes them maybe not want to buy this in the future. It’s going to be flavor, price, convenience that gets people to buy it at the supermarket. And I think that lab grown isn’t going to be like on the label, right? It’s going to say like, I don’t know, “made from cells” you know, no animal like… there’s whey protein you can buy in a supermarket today Kai that’s called… it says it’s made from non animal whey protein. So it’ll be something like that, that’s a little, you know, obscured from like really understanding that it was grown in the lab.

Kai Ryssdal 

So the answer is really Kai get over yourself. I gave you the answer in the first instance. All right, that’s fine. I’ll take that. That’s fine.

Kimberly Adams 

It’s funny, because like, having actually been in a situation where I have watched the chicken that I ate be slaughtered in front of me, that has a much higher ick factor to me.

Kai Ryssdal 

We have varying ick factors. Sorry I’ve derailed part of the conversation anyway.

Larissa Zimberoff 

Um, you mentioned climate like is, is cultivated meat going to answer our climate woes. And most of these startups are actually founded by by vegans who don’t eat meat and they’re, I would say, their number one concern is animal welfare. And this will absolutely get us to a different place, but people have to stop eating industrial meat to get us to that to that place. And that is another big hurdle.

Kimberly Adams 

You mentioned the labeling thing which opens up another big issue, which is the fight between this industry and the sort of industrial meat industry. I know that like there’s issues, they don’t want like sort of the industrial food sector doesn’t want nut milks being called milk. They don’t want you know, the veggie burgers to be called burgers and things like that. How is that fight playing out in the sector?

Larissa Zimberoff 

Other than this, like, it’s going to be the word “meat” that is going to be an issue. I do think that because the nut milk people have been fighting the fight and like the tofurkey, you know, hot dog people have been fighting the fight, that it may come that industrial meat companies want to work a little bit closer with these startups. And evidence for that, that I have is that they’re investing in these companies. So they’re not actually going to necessarily want to put a roadblock there in that labeling because they also want to, like JBS or Cargill, like they want to make money. So they’re going to figure out how to like support it. And they’re going to have to figure out how to support their ranchers who have been with them, you know, for decades.

Kai Ryssdal 

So this is the tip of the iceberg, right? I mean, eventually, given how fast the, you know, population on the planet is growing and how quickly we’re sucking up, you know, usable, productive resources, we’re going to be growing everything in a lab.

Larissa Zimberoff 

Oh, yeah. I’ve written about lab grown chocolate. I’ve written about lab grown egg proteins, milk proteins… What else? Coffee people are making alternative coffee that’s not made from coffee beans. Honey, there’s a there’s a Bay Area company making honey but not from bees. It’s pretty, it’s pretty “oh my gosh,” yeah.

Kimberly Adams 

Speaking of oh, my gosh, I saw a while back about the woolly mammoth meatball that some company did. I think it was like a Norway or something like that.

Larissa Zimberoff 

Australia.

Kimberly Adams 

Australia. Thank you. It does kind of open the door to some ethical questions of if you can create any kind of meat, are there any guardrails or any ethical discussions happening about what meats you can, well not just can, but should I guess, grow in a lab? Because I mean, what happens when somebody says I want some dolphin meat or some manatee meat or some human meat, and you’re not killing a creature or a person? Like, you know, I’m just thinking about these experimental restaurants and things like that, that just like to make waves? Like how do how are people talking about that stuff?

Larissa Zimberoff 

I think it’s a real good question to have, because I wrote a piece for Fast Company about these, you know, what investors, how investors are taking our food system, where their money is sort of directing us. And these mammoth is these these quote unquote, mammoth meatballs that were made by Vox, a company in Australia, no one could eat it. Because we, we we haven’t been eating mammoth. And it wasn’t actually 100% mammoth it was like mammoth grown sheep cells. So this mammoth meatball is actually in a museum, which is kind of ridiculous, I think, and a waste of money, a waste of a lot of money. Like kind of doing it for science, you know, kind of a science stunt. Like, let’s see if we can do this. But if we want to change that people are eating industrial meat, cheap meat that is harmful to the environment and harmful to you know, kind of not harmful to animals, it’s all harmful to animals. But if we want to change that system, making a mammoth meatball doesn’t make any sense. We need to be focusing on making it cheaper, making chicken and making it tasty and delicious. And that is going to be very hard. But you both mentioned this UC Davis study that talks about the cradle to gate lifecycle assessment. Universities are getting in on it, this sector. They’re, they’re researching it, they’re trying to figure out what we can do and how we can do it. And this this innovation that’s coming is is pretty fascinating and interesting. And Kai, there’s a lot of ick and there’s a lot of questions, and there’s a lot of maybes and I don’t knows still.

Kimberly Adams 

All right, well, I’ll leave it there, Larissa Zimberoff…. Unless you have more

Kai Ryssdal 

No it’s totally interesting. Yeah, it’s kind of wild.

Kimberly Adams 

Yeah. All right. The book is “Technically Food: inside Silicon Valley’s mission to change what we eat.” Thank you so much.

Larissa Zimberoff 

Thank you. It was great.

Kimberly Adams 

Would you eat like dinosaur meat? If they could make it?

Kai Ryssdal 

Maybe? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.

Kimberly Adams 

Anyway, we’d love to know what you think about the rise of lab grown meat, or cultivated meat or food in general, why not? Let us know our number is 508-827-6278 also known as 508-UB-SMART or you can email us at makemesmart@marketplace.org We will be right back

Kai Ryssdal 

We are back, we shall do some news. Kimberly Adams tou go first.

Kimberly Adams 

It is the news. They got a deal over the holiday weekend. I was surprised. I’m not gonna lie. I was I was surprised. And I’m still skeptical. But I will say after looking at what is in this deal, it doesn’t actually change that much in practice, it seems. There are definitely talking points for either side in terms of what they can say they won. But I do think that we can’t forget that the Biden administration started out saying that they weren’t going to negotiate this and now they are… or now they did. And this is now twice the Democrats have done this, and Republicans have not in their administrations. And it’s worth just saying that out loud and being aware of what that will mean for these debates in the future. Because this deal pushes the next debt ceiling debate, you know, need for an increase to January 2025, which means whoever wins the 2024 presidential election has this nice gift waiting for them as soon as they arrive in the Oval Office, because it’ll be probably smack dab in the middle of extraordinary measures on trying to keep that going. And even though a lot of this deal keeps spending flat, and I want to get to sort of what it says about spending in a second… But if you think about inflation, it is effectively a cut. It is effectively an across the board spending cut if you keep things flat when you consider how much inflation we’ve had. And so that is, even if it’s not being said out loud, a win for the GOP in that they did get get a cut. Now, the Biden administration will say that in their budget proposal, they’d pretty much wanted things to be flat or have relatively small increases in several of these categories. That would have effectively also been a cut with inflation. Now, the way the Biden administration is talking about this deal is that they didn’t negotiate on the debt limit, they negotiated on the budget which is what they would have done anyway, it just so happens that it’s at the same time as they were negotiating the debt limit. Whatever. What’s interesting about this is because the way that we fund our government, we’re talking about the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, right? And even if that budget passes, they still have to pass the appropriations to spend that money. And that is where a lot of these details are going to end up getting hashed out. And so even if this budget makes it through with the overall parameters that are laid out in this deal, I’ll still be very interested to see what actually happens in the appropriations process. So that’s my take on this.

Kai Ryssdal 

No, that’s really good. And it’s good, it’s good… And I say this truly non-pejoratively, it’s good inside the beltway perspective on what’s gonna happen.

Kimberly Adams 

That’s why I’m here!

Kai Ryssdal 

Yeah, mine is mine is related, but a little bit more historical. And I just want to remind everybody, as as Kimberly pointed out, we still don’t actually have a vote on this thing and has not been approved. There’s lots that has to happen. The Freedom Caucus in the House is making all kinds of noise today Tuesday that they’re going to vote it down. I think the count on people who’ve said no is like 18 now on the GOP side in the house, so they’re obviously going to need some Democratic votes, and they’ll probably get some. But whether it’s enough is all another question. I do just want to remind everybody then on the 29th of September 2008, the House of Representatives voted down the TARP in the middle of the financial crisis. The House of Representatives said “no, thank you. We’re not going to spend $700 billion to save the banking system, the financial sector.” Promptly the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 777 points, 68 points, right? That’s about a 7% drop. Today that would be about 25-2600 points on the Dow. And then took them four days to go back and get a final bill passed by both the House and the Senate. I would just like to point out that we don’t really have four days. Technically, do we have four days? Yes. Legislatively? We don’t have four days. And so the margin of error is still very, very, very narrow. The the markets today are not freaking out. They think it’s gonna get done. God bless them, I hope so. But I never, I’m on the record in my in my disdain for the Congress of the United States being able to do things and and I… the proof is in the pudding. If they get it done great. If not, you know also not great

Kimberly Adams 

Yeah. They really do not have a margin of error at all here. And, you know the Freedom Caucus is one part of it. But there are a lot of Democrats that are pretty upset about this. They’re running into problems getting this thing out of committee. Yeah, I have many thoughts. I’m sure we’ll be watching this play out over the next couple of days.

Kai Ryssdal 

We will.

Kimberly Adams 

Okey dokey. That’s it for the news fix. Let’s do the mailbag.

Robin 

Hi Kai and Kimberly. This is Godfrey from San Francisco. Jessie from Charleston, South Carolina. And I have a follow up question. It has me thinking and feeling a lot of things.

Kai Ryssdal 

We talked the other day about retailers not offering free returns anymore or making it tougher to return things. And here is what we got in response.

Robin 

Hi, this is Robin calling for San Clemente. I just wanted to point out that the retailers can’t have it both ways. They can’t close down all of their stores so that it’s impossible to try anything on and look at it. And then resent the fact that we want to bring items home and try them on in our own homes. If they’re going to shut down returns, which I guess I understand and respect, then they need not closes many brick and mortar stores. So that’s my thought. Thanks for making the smart. Bye!

Kai Ryssdal 

Totally fair. Totally fair.

Kimberly Adams 

Totally fair. Absolutely. But fairness doesn’t necessarily motivate capitalism.

Kai Ryssdal 

That is correct. All right. As we do on this podcast, we’re going to leave you with this week’s answer to the make me smart question, which is: what is something you thought you knew, but later found out you were wrong about. Antonio Barrera has come to the end of his internship with us and thus he gets the answer to the make me smart question today. Here you go.

Antonio Barreras 

Something I thought I knew but later found out I was strong about, was how to be creative. Growing up, I always thought that the only way to express my creativity was through the arts, through performing. But as time has gone by, I’ve realized that there can be creativity in everything that I do. From the way I tell those closest to me that I love them, to which streets I explore when going on walks, creativity can be anything that I want it to be. Finding how to be creative in those little things, those mundane tasks, has really changed my perspective, and allowed me to create joy in all corners of my life.

Kai Ryssdal 

Oh, I like that. That’s nice.

Kimberly Adams 

I do too. That’s such a good point. I have spent my whole life saying I’m not that creative, because I can’t like draw or sing or like play a musical instrument. But yeah, that’s, that’s a really good point. That’s a great perspective Antonio. All right. What is something that you’ve been wrong about, like me about creativity or anything else? Leave us a voice message with your answer to the make me smart question. Our number again is 508-827-6278 also known as 508-UB-SMART.

Kai Ryssdal 

Today’s episode of Make Me Smart was produced by our intern Antonio Barreras with help from Courtney Bergsieker. Ellen Rolfes writes our newsletter. Today’s program was engineered by Charlton Thorp with mixing by Mingxin Qiguan.

Kimberly Adams 

Ben Tolliday and Daniel Ramirez composed our theme music. Our senior producer is Marissa Cabrera. Bridget Bodnar is the director of podcasts. Francesca Levy is the executive director of Digital. And Marketplace’s Vice President and General Manager is Neal Scarbrough.  You do any grilling this weekend?

Kai Ryssdal 

Oh, actually no grilling this weekend. Meats or otherwise.

Kimberly Adams 

Me neither.

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