Lab-Grown Meat: When Affordable, Ethical Burgers Could Actually Hit Stores

It sounds bizarre, but it's about to take off in a big way.

Cultured meat, sourced from a lab instead of an animal from a farm, could reach your dinner plate far sooner than you expect, no slaughterhouse required. And unlike previous iterations of the lab grown burger, you might actually be able to afford it.

The cutting-edge lab-grown burgers could reach $10 per patty and hit supermarket shelves as early as 2021, according to a Reuters report on Tuesday. Mercedes Vila, co-founder of Biotech Foods, told the agency that the goal is to have regulatory approval and reach production scale by this date.

“The burger was this expensive in 2013 because back then it was novel science and we were producing at very small scale,” a spokesperson for Netherlands-based Mosa Meat told Reuters, who claims it could eventually beat regular meat on price. “Once production is scaled up, we project the cost of producing a hamburger will be around nine euros.”

It’s a far cry from the early days of lab meat back in 2013, when Mosa Meat’s now-chief scientific officer Mark Post first ate a five-ounce burger. At the eye-watering sum of $325,000, the burger wasn’t exactly consumer-ready. The main feedback from taste testers was that the first iteration was very lean, and thus not particularly juicy.

Lab-grown meat seems like science fiction right now, but there’s good reason to believe that’s all about to change.

cultured meat cells
How muscle tissue is grown in culture in a lab. A cultured beef burger is the result of researchers growing muscle strands this size -- thousands of times.

Lab-Grown Meat: Why It’s Set to Expand

The meat could reduce the amount of farmland used by animals, and potentially eliminate the dependance on animals for food entirely. Stem cells from an animal are placed in a bioreactor to encourage growth, producing more tissue that can create meat. Future advancements could eliminate the need to take ingredients from animals completely.

Capital has poured into the nascent industry, including from Google co-founder Sergey Brin among its backers. Investment in 2018 soared to $50 million, double the total amount that had ever been invested before that year.

This has helped researchers dramatically reduce the cost of lab-grown burgers. A CB Insights report found that the price of a beef patty had dropped to just $11, bringing it close to the same price as a meal out (not counting labor costs or other ingredients).

These trends could not only help lab meat gain a command of the market, but also to replace plant-based meat as an alternative. Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat use alternative ingredients to simulate meat, and fast food outlets like Burger King have already started selling them.

But in the long run, plant-based meat may lose out to lab burgers. A recent report from AT Kearney last month showed that by 2040, cultured meat could claim 35 percent of the market, compared to 25 percent for plant meat and 40 percent for standard meat.

A woman holds the Beyond Burger, a patty made from plant proteins by meat alternative producer Beyond Meat.
A woman holds the Beyond Burger, a patty made from plant proteins by meat alternative producer Beyond Meat.

Lab-Grown Meat: It Still Faces Some Hurdles

Hurdles remain. Research published earlier this month shows consumers are rather sensitive to how the meat is marketed. A recent bill in Mississippi outright banned using the term “burger” to describe any products that don’t contain animal product, a potential sign of what’s to come, as Vox reported.

Selling the public on lab grown meat will require careful marketing. A team from the University of Bath and other institutions recently spoke to 480 American adults about cultured meat, and pitched it using either its “societal benefits,” its “high tech” nature, or by saying it was actually “same [as] meat.” While 65 percent overall said they were willing to try the product, the ones who were pitched the fake meat as a “high tech” product were markedly more skeptical.

Considering how media coverage has focused on this framing, it could have an adverse effect on consumer acceptance.

A myriad of factors could also skew the market. Research from Michigan State University found that younger people were far more likely to consider trying the meat: 60 percent of 30 to 39-year-olds said they were likely to try, while 68 percent of over-55s said they were not likely.

The research also found that men, liberals, and households earning over $75,000 were all more likely to consider the product. Women, conservatives, and lower-income households all expressed more skepticism.

There’s also reason to think that lab grown meat won’t exactly be a sustainability panacea. The Good Food Institute, a nonprofit advocacy group, claims clean beef could reduce greenhouse gases by 87 percent versus regular beef farming methods. But researchers at the University of Oxford note that cows produce nitrous oxide and methane, whereas labs may use carbon dioxide to produce energy. All these concerns could change the image of lab meat before it reaches the table.

That said, if you’ve been hungry to taste the meat the future, you’ll soon get your chance.