Harrison Dilday

Lab-Grown Meat: Making Reality from Absurdity

Speaking in 1931, Winston Churchill predicted that within fifty years, “we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing.”1 Though his math was a bit off, his prophetic words may soon ring true. The cutting edge of agriculture technology is “clean meat”: meat grown in a lab entirely without existing as part of an animal. In August, Cargill, Inc. became the first traditional meat company to invest in clean meats as part of a $17 million series A funding round for San Francisco Bay-area based company Memphis Meats, Inc.2 The funding round also included noteworthy investors Bill Gates and Richard Branson.3

Clean meat—a play on clean energy technologies4—is created via a two-step laboratory process. In the first step, animal cells are placed in a bioreactor and fed a nutrient solution. The cells then multiply before being introduced for cellular adherence to an engineered structure called scaffolding.5 The scaffolding instructs the cells to form the necessary muscles, fat, and connective tissues, the result of which is the final meat product—described as largely indistinguishable from traditionally raised and slaughtered livestock.6

The benefits of clean meat are vast. Given the synthetic and highly controlled nature of the final product, the meat could be designed to leave out certain allergens or be custom designed for specific dietary needs.7 The process by which clean meats are produced also negates the need for antibiotics, which could help stem the rise of resistant bacteria.8 Additionally, creating clean meat takes only three-to-six weeks—­­far less than the time required to raise an animal to the age necessary for slaughter, meaning food can be created and provided much quicker.9 Animal-welfare activists are proponents of clean meat as well, as no animals involved in the growth process means no animals are harmed or abused.10

Other benefits are less obvious, but every bit as game changing. The United Nations has estimated that nearly one third of the world’s grain and one quarter of all land is used to raise animals for meat consumption.11 Reclaiming that food and land for human use would help feed the world’s increasing population. And, in an interesting twist, clean meat could in fact have a massive impact on climate change. Global agriculture, which is largely livestock production and the grain necessary to support it, accounts for thirty percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.12 Even more shocking, greenhouse gas emissions directly attributable to livestock production amounts to eighteen percent of total emissions—more than the entire transportation industry.13 Clean meat production offers the chance to completely remove livestock from the climate change equation and reduce the impacts of greenhouse gases.

Regulatory agencies are currently unsure as to how to support clean meat growth, however, nor is it clear which agencies would be granted final regulatory. Typically, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has oversight on meat, poultry, and eggs, while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is charged with regulating the safety of food additives and biologics, which can include products made from human tissues, blood, and cells.14 This breakdown seems a simple enough distinction, but the facts on the ground create strange circumstances: open-face sandwiches are currently regulated by the USDA, yet closed sandwiches answer to the FDA; sausages are overseen by the USDA, but the FDA regulates sausage casing; and pizza is regulated by the FDA, but pepperoni pizza specifically may receive regulatory oversight from both the FDA or the USDA.15 This regulatory song and dance could hinge on small fact: clean meat may not even be considered “meat” according to FDA or USDA standards.16 If clean meat is eventually considered something other than an animal product, the FDA would most likely have regulatory authority.17

The White House has tried to get out in front of this growing technology and provide guidance to the agencies. In 2015, the Obama administration launched a multiyear review process to “clarify the roles of agencies that determine the safety of genetically altered plants and animals: the [FDA], the [USDA], and the Environmental Protection Agency.”18 The current framework, responsible for the seemingly incongruent situations listed above, was last updated in 1992.19  Whether the Drumpf administration will continue the review process is unclear.

The government has some time before clean meat makes appearances on American dinner tables; Memphis Meats doesn’t expect to sell its product commercially until 2021.20 Though that timeline is still dependent on clear government direction, that big name investors with track records of successful ventures are considering clean meat means this is a technology sector that is deserving of a close watch.

* GLTR Editor of Legal News & Developments; Georgetown Law, J.D. expected 2018; Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies, B.A. 2015. © 2017, R. Harrison Dilday.