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Test tube to table

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WORLD Radio - Test tube to table

Cultivated meat is making strides in the lab, but hasn’t hit grocery store freezers yet


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NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Tuesday, the 7th of March, 2023.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown.

First up on The World and Everything in It, FrankenFood.

Well, recently The Food and Drug Administration announced that lab-grown meat from a California startup called Upside Foods appears safe for humans. Final approval is up to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

EICHER: Upside Foods is just one of many companies around the world vying for a place in the market. But will consumers trust what’s on their plates? WORLD’s Mary Muncy has that story.

MARY: Would you eat lab grown meat? Meat that’s grown in a big vat from stem cells?

MOS: Uh… No, no.

MARY MUNCY, REPORTER: I went to the Walmart meat section to see if anyone would try cultivated meat. The results were varied.

MOS: I’d try it

MARY: Yeah? Would you buy it? If it was here?

MOS: I’d have to try it first.

Most people said they would try it once. But several worried it wouldn’t be healthy.

The companies trying to get cultivated meat on the market say the goal is to create a safe, healthy product that helps the environment.

PERSHAD: My name is Mihir Pershad. I'm the founder and CEO of Umami Meats.

Umami Meats is a cultivated meat startup in Singapore, the first country to allow the commercial sale of cultivated meat. It specializes in endangered fish.

PERSHAD: So the process is akin to developing like a new seed for crop.

The process starts at the docks with a recently caught fish. Umami Meats gets a tissue sample from the fish and takes it to the lab.

From there, they isolate a stem cell and start the growing process.

The factory looks a lot like a giant brewery.

PERSHAD: So you'll have the big steel tanks that are maybe two stories tall. And then you have a bunch of smaller vessels that are used for things like the feedstock for the cells or for harvesting.

From there, they add in what those stem cells need to grow. Right now, one of the main growth hormones used comes from cattle. It’s a fetal growth hormone harvested by slaughtering a pregnant cow.

PERSHAD: We grow trillions of cells from a small vial of maybe a million cells. And that trillions of cells gets turned into muscle and fat at the right ratio.

That process can help keep a lot of things out of the meat. Because the fish meat is growing in a vat, it won't be exposed to many of the pollutants that wild fish swim in. Things like heavy metals.

PERSHAD: Also reduction of microplastics, and elimination of them if you're eating cultivated versus eating wild-caught fish.

Pershad points out that the process is very similar to making fermented products like yogurt. He says even the most natural bread is a processed food because flour has to be milled.

PERSHAD: I think the unfamiliar was always a little bit concerning to many people, right, just by the fact that we don't know what something is we always have we approach it with caution.

Usually, that means doing a lot of research.

HOCQUETTE: My name is Jean-Francois Hocquette. I am a senior scientist at INRAE which is a French research institute for agriculture, food, and environment.

Right now, Hocquette says the question isn’t just, ‘does the meat have nutrients?’ It’s ‘can our bodies process those nutrients?’

Plants have iron in them, yet meat is a better source of it. That’s because the chemical makeup of iron found in meat is easier for our bodies to process than the iron in plants.

HOCQUETTE: You need to know precisely the composition, but also the digestibility of cultured meat, it it's very important to know if nutrients, micronutrients and micro nutrients are digestible.

Normally, a mother cow slowly gives her calf those nutrients while it’s in the womb. Then once it’s born, the cow converts nutrients from the grass or grain it eats into vitamins… and then those are slowly incorporated into its body.

Cultivated meat companies try to mimic that by giving cells nutrients slowly at the right time.

Hocquette says the period of transformation from cells to muscle fibers is critical to absorbing nutrients.

Then, after a cow is slaughtered, Hocquette says it goes through another set of chemical processes. The muscle becomes meat.

HOCQUETTE: It's a well-known process by butchers. It means that a muscle and meat are very different.

He says it’s like the difference between grape juice and wine. They both start as grapes, but aging changes its chemical structure.

Hocquette says private companies have probably answered some of the questions about nutrition. But since they're private companies, the research hasn't been made public yet.

That makes it very difficult for anyone to determine if it’s safe.

HOCQUETTE: If the data stays in the private companies, you cannot check this data you cannot analyze this data. So far, we don't have enough data to be sure of the safety and nutritional quality of cultured meat, but this is the point we need more transparency.

Some groups also argue that cultivated meat will help lower emissions. But scientists aren’t sure yet.

HOCQUETTE: It's very difficult to estimate the carbon footprint of something which doesn't exist rarely at a large scale. It's likely that the carbon footprint of cultivated meat has been underestimated so far.

The last big hurdle that cultured meat companies will have to jump is gaining consumers' trust.

WALMART AMBI

It’ll take a lot of growth for cultured meat to show up in Walmart’s meat aisle.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Mary Muncy.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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