Food & Drink

Are You Ready to Eat Lab-Grown Meat?

Here’s what you need to know about meat grown from a petri dish.
IMAGE Unsplash / David Todd McCarty
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News that Singapore is the first country in the world to approve the sale of so-called lab-grown meat spread pretty quickly on social media when it was announced on Wednesday. The city state approved the application of an American company called Eat Just to market and sell its product—what is essentially “cultured chicken”—to the public. 

After Singapore, it might only be a matter of time before other countries follow suit. But what is lab grown meat anyway? 

What is lab grown meat?

Also known as “cultured meat” or “clean meat,” lab grown meat is meat produced through in vitro cell culture of animal cells. It’s basically making it possible to have a product that looks, cooks and tastes like animal meat without slaughtering the animals themselves.

Meat fit for human consumption that could be grown in a lab isn’t new. Even Winston Churchill, the former British Prime Minister, suggested the idea in his 1931 essay Fifty Years Hence, “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”

In 2013, a Netherlands-based researcher was able to serve hamburger made entirely in a lab using stem cells from live cattle. That ushered a wave of experiments for consumer-ready meat alternatives from startups from all corners of the globe. 

While these startups have had varying levels of success, none of them have been able to acquire government regulatory approval to sell their product commercially. Until now.

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Why is Singapore’s approval of cultured meat important?

According to the New York Times, Singapore’s move is “the world’s first regulatory approval for a cultivated meat product,” said Elaine Siu, the managing director of the Good Food Institute Asia Pacific, a nonprofit organization that promotes cultivated meat and plant-based substitutes for animal products.

“Anyone in this field would know that this is the world’s first because everyone has been waiting—and trying to lobby and fight for it—for the past few years,” Siu added.

A spokeswoman for Singapore’s Food Agency also said that they are not aware of “any other countries that have given approval for cultured meat products so far.”

Wait—is lab grown meat ethical?

Vegetarian and vegan groups, animal rights organizations, ethicists and philosophers are still divided on whether lab grown meat is ethical. For the most part, many are in agreement that no animals are killed to produce it. 

“Artificial meat stops cruelty to animals, is better for the environment, could be safer and more efficient, and even healthier,” said Julian Savulescu, professor of practical ethics at the University of Oxford. “We have a moral obligation to support this kind of research. It gets the ethical two thumbs up.  

Of course, Eat Just, the startup that won approval in Singapore, is also celebrating the milestone and promoting the benefits of the company’s product. 

“This is a historic moment in the food system,” Eat Just’s chief executive, Josh Tetrick, told the New York Times. “We’ve been eating meat for thousands of years, and every time we’ve eaten meat we’ve had to kill an animal—until now.” 

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Some argue, however, that because lab grown meat is still meat, and some methods to create it still involves animal-based products, it's still problematic.

How much is it?

Because we ‘re still in the early stages of the development of lab grown meat, don’t expect it to be as affordable as the one you can get at your local butcher. Eat Just, for example, has said that it costs $50 (about P2,400) to produce a single nugget. However, the company’s website now claims the nuggets will be available at about the same price you would pay for a premium chicken product one would order in a restaurant. 

Israeli food tech startup Aleph Farms, developed beef that initially costs about $3,000 (P144,000) per kilogram, while a collective of companies and non-profits from Belgium working on a foie gras substiture announced that a kilo of the product they are working on costs 15,000 euros (a whopping P875,000).

Meat alternatives are already available in the market in the form of plant-based food. But as for lab grown meat, notwithstanding Singapore’s okay on the product, it’s safe to say that it’s going to take a while before we can see it on supermarket shelves and restaurant menus.

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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