Lab to Table: A closer look into GMO meat

Imagine if instead of going to your local butcher for your New York strip, you went to a meat lab. The proof of concept is there, and lab grown meat is a reality. And while cultured meat promises many advantages to conventional grown meat, maybe we should take a closer look.

I work in a cell culture lab, and I know first-hand how expensive it is to keep cell cultures alive. The cells need to be kept at a constant temperature 24/7, in a sterile environment and constantly monitored. It is very frustrating to set up your dishes with cells, only to come back on experiment day to find fungus or bacteria happily growing in your dish. After all, we grow the cells in media that is rich in nutrients and at optimal growing conditions. It’s the perfect environment for contaminants. How do we prevent bacteria and fungus from growing? Lots and lots of anti-microbials! While this is fine for in-vitro experiments, we certainly don’t know the long term effects of these antimicrobials in our bodies if we consume them.

What is also alarming is that the growth media could be contaminated with undetectable viruses. [1] Viruses in media are more difficult to detect, because they need PCR amplification, and since the media comes from animals (more on that later), there is very little we can do to prevent this. Again, these viruses might not affect the experiments being performed, but could have effects on a human consuming lab grown meat.

Now, if we can achieve complete sterility in these labs, the use of antimicrobials could be avoided. But, as you can imagine, this is very costly.

The “expense problem” is usually swept under the rug by proponents of lab cultured meat with the argument of escalation. [2] In other words, as the technology develops it will become less expensive. But unfortunately, even in the scientific realm, escalation of the technology to grow cells is happening slowly, this has been a barrier for scientific research for the last 30 years. 3 The technology for the creation of lab grown meat is very new, and even though it’s possible at a small scale, the technology for this meat to reach the supermarket is not here yet. Another hurdle that needs to be met is that lab grown meat would need machines that would “exercise the muscles” being grown to create the “right” texture. These machines have been conceptualized but have not been created. [4] In other words, scalability is still far, far away.

For more on scalability of technology, listen to this podcast.

Lab grown meat is also touted as being “cruelty-free”. These cell culture models are grown with Fetal Bovine Serum, thus growing meat starts by harvesting stem cells from a live cow and then making them replicate over time in this media. [2] Fetal bovine serum is harvested from the blood of fetal cows, and there is already a lot of push back for using this very useful medium for scientific research. [5] The alternative to Fetal Bovine Serum would be to engineer algae to create the media, but this has proven very hard to do, again delaying the prospect of escalation.6

Furthermore, lab grown meat is grown with a single strain of cells. This means that at the moment we have to grow the muscle cells separate from the fat cells. [7] As you might imagine, the flavor is not appetizing without the addition of fat. Adding fat is necessary to lab grown meat, this creates another hurdle, growing mix cultures is harder than you imagine. Growing fat cells requires techniques and environments that are different to the techniques and environments of growing muscle. And and since growing fat cells has not been studied as much as growing other tissues like cartilage or muscle, new frontiers have yet to be trail blazed.8 What scares me the most, is that there are many articles claiming that having a fat-free meat substitute will be a healthier alternative (articles like this one and this one!). First of all, eating completely fat free muscle can kill you! [9] Rabbit starvation happens when you consume lean protein in the absence of fat, thus scientists would have to add fat to the lab grown meat in order to make it safe for consumption. I imagine that the scientists would look into our current nutrition guidelines to make the perfect meat-to-fat ratio. The last time we decided to create the perfect fat in a lab, we created fat alternatives like margarine and other polyunsaturated fats that turned out to be less than optimal. [10]

Now consider the “yuck” factor that will be associated with lab grown meat. I doubt that people will jump with enthusiasm to the idea of consuming this product. This will put scientists in a very pesky situation, when farmed salmon was not selling because of its dull color, [11] scientists came up with a solution. They discovered that by adding artificial color to their feed, salmon would develop a color that was similar to their fresh caught counterpart. [12] The salmon looks the part, but the health effects of eating salmon go beyond the color. Salmon get their color from eating crustaceans and other substances that contain asthaxanthin, but crustaceans also increase their Omega-3 fatty acids, in fact, salmons fed a pellet diet that included asthaxanthin (but lacks naturally occurring Omega-3 fatty acids) have a different fatty-acid composition –regardless of color – and this fatty acid content might be deleterious to our health. [13]

Finally, I would like to address the subject of sustainability. Sustainability is very important, and it’s a subject that everyone should embrace. The proponents of lab cultured meat propose that lab grown meat could be better for the environment. [14] This is if we can get to production levels necessary to bring cultured meat to market, if we can convince people to eat it (over grass fed meat), and that’s not even considering if the stuff is safe for consumption. But let’s pretend that those details are unimportant, the problem is that creating a new system of meat production is not the answer to our ecological woes. Creating new technologies to fix a problem that already has a solution only creates more cost. In fact, this problem exists in medicine;  For example, robot-assisted surgeries have not proven to be economically (or proven to be more advantageous in the long term) than laparoscopic or open surgeries. [15]

This happens with pharmaceutical development. We are constantly looking for the next blockbuster drug, but prevention should always be the most important intervention, there is no need for a new drug. We also complain that the pharmaceutical research is muddled, and riddled with inconsistencies, this is because so much money is spent in development, and faulty research is pushed in order to bring these drugs to market. But as Harold Thimleby puts it “pharmaceutical development fails scientific standards; yet technology development, does not even aspire to the scientific standards that pharmaceutical research is aware it fails to reach.” [16]

We already have a solution that for our sustainability problem. I’ll let the likes of Diana Rodgers, Joel Salatin, Mike Ritter and The Savory Institute make the argument for me. In short, producing meat the way it was meant to be produced, by letting cows graze on green grass actually saves the environment. [17] This does not mean that we should stop looking into growing muscles in-vitro. Just like Velcro was developed for astronauts and eventually made it to your shoes, technological advances have impact beyond the scope of their original implementation. Lab cultured tissue could eventually make it possible for us to grow replacement organs in-vitro. [18] Technology is not inherently evil, in fact I am constantly amused with the ingenuity of humans. It’s the application of such technologies that we should be wary about. Maybe one day we’ll have the option of getting our cultured steak medium rare, but for now I’ll continue to choose grassfed.


1.       Pinheiro de Oliveira TF, Fonseca Júnior AA, Camargos MF, et al. Porcine parvovirus as a contaminant in cell cultures and laboratory supplies. Biologicals. 2016;44(2):53-59. doi:10.1016/j.biologicals.2015.12.003.

2.       Bhat ZF, Fayaz H. Prospectus of cultured meat—advancing meat alternatives. J Food Sci Technol. 2011;48(2):125-140. doi:10.1007/s13197-010-0198-7.

3.       Glacken MW, Fleischaker RJ, Sinskey AJ. Large-scale production of mammalian cells and their products: engineering principles and barriers to scale-up. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 1983;413:355-372. Accessed September 3, 2016.

4.       Post MJ. Cultured meat from stem cells: challenges and prospects. Meat Sci. 2012;92(3):297-301. doi:10.1016/j.meatsci.2012.04.008.

5.       Jochems CEA, Van der Valk JBF, Stafleu FR, Baumans V. The use of fetal bovine serum: Ethical or scientific problem? ATLA Altern to Lab Anim. 2002;30(2):219-227.

6.       Belasco W. Algae Burgers for a Hungry World? The Rise and Fall of Chlorella Cuisine. Source Technol Cult. 1997;38(3):608-634. Accessed September 3, 2016.

7.       Maddie Stone. The Future Will Be Full of Lab Grown Meat. WebMedia. Published 2016. Accessed September 3, 2016.

8.       Post MJ. Cultured beef: medical technology to produce food. J Sci Food Agric. 2014;94(6):1039-1041. doi:10.1002/jsfa.6474.

9.       Bilsborough S, Mann N. A review of issues of dietary protein intake in humans. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2006;16(2):129-152. Accessed September 3, 2016.

10.     Vučić V, Arsić A, Petrović S, Milanović S, Gurinović M, Glibetić M. Trans fatty acid content in Serbian margarines: Urgent need for legislative changes and consumer information. Food Chem. 2015;185:437-440. doi:10.1016/j.foodchem.2015.04.018.


12.     Brizio P, Benedetto A, Righetti M, et al. Astaxanthin and canthaxanthin (xanthophyll) as supplements in rainbow trout diet: in vivo assessment of residual levels and contributions to human health. J Agric Food Chem. 2013;61(46):10954-10959. doi:10.1021/jf4012664.

13.     Midtbø LK, Ibrahim MM, Myrmel LS, et al. Intake of farmed Atlantic salmon fed soybean oil increases insulin resistance and hepatic lipid accumulation in mice. PLoS One. 2013;8(1):e53094. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0053094.

14.     Tuomisto HL, de Mattos MJT. Environmental impacts of cultured meat production. Environ Sci Technol. 2011;45(14):6117-6123. doi:10.1021/es200130u.

15.     Kaye DR, Mullins JK, Carter HB, Bivalacqua TJ. Robotic surgery in urological oncology: patient care or market share? Nat Rev Urol. 2015;12(1):55-60. doi:10.1038/nrurol.2014.339.

16.     Thimbleby H. Technology and the future of healthcare. J Public health Res. 2013;2(3):e28. doi:10.4081/jphr.2013.e28.

17.     Conant RT, Paustian K, Elliott ET. GRASSLAND MANAGEMENT AND CONVERSION INTO GRASSLAND: EFFECTS ON SOIL CARBON. Ecol Appl. 2001;11(2):343-355. doi:10.1890/1051-0761(2001)011[0343:GMACIG]2.0.CO;2.

18.     Jung JP, Bhuiyan DB, Ogle BM. Solid organ fabrication: comparison of decellularization to 3D bioprinting. Biomater Res. 2016;20(1):27. doi:10.1186/s40824-016-0074-2.