All meat? Or no meat? Or what about something in between? That would be “hybrid meat.”  What in the world is that?

In this case, it would be made by mixing cultivated meat, often called cultured or lab meat, with plant-based meat.

Cultivated meat

Cultivated meat is meat grown in giant stainless steel bioreactors with animal cells taken from a live animal such as a cow, pig or chicken using a biopsy to do that. The cells are immersed in a carefully regulated nutrient solution that spurs them to grow until they become pieces of meat. An important part of this is that no animals need to be killed. The final product is not “fake meat,” as it has sometimes been called, but actual meat. Or “slaughter-free” meat as some advocates call it.  

Important to keep in mind: This is not meat raised in the conventional way, on a farm or out in the field and then butchered and sold in grocery stores or restaurants.

Late last year, the FDA gave cultivated meat maker California-based UPSIDE Foods the green light for its chicken grown from animal cells, marking the first regulatory approval for any cultivated meat in the United States.

“Our chicken looks, cooks, and tastes like chicken because it is real chicken,” says a company website.

And just this week, UPSIDE Foods announced a new 187,000-square-foot facility north of Chicago. It will kickstart its operations by focusing on the production of ground-cultivated chicken products, paving the way for an innovative range of offerings. It has the capacity to expand production up to 30 million pounds annually.

In addition to working toward full approval to sell the product, UPSIDE Foods is planning to build its first commercial-scale facility. This plant will have an annual capacity of tens of millions of pounds of cultivated meat. UPSIDE hopes to have the facility up and running in the next couple of years, said a company official.

Out on the marketplace, it could take several years before consumers see lab-based meats in more than a few high-end restaurants and seven to 10 years before they hit the wider market, said Sebastian Bohn, who specializes in cell-based foods at CRB, a Missouri firm that designs and builds facilities for pharmaceutical, biotech and food companies.

Industry experts predict that while it could be as far away as 100 years before the vast majority of the world’s meat will be made this way, they also say it probably won’t happen on any scale to speak of until the next 30 years. That’s in large part because of the need to build the necessary infrastructure to produce enough of the meat and also to attract enough investors. And to get the price down to where ordinary shoppers would want to buy it.

In 2013, when news about the world’s first lab-grown burger came out, it cost $330,000 to produce. But by 2017, some industry experts were talking about lab-made burger meat that can be produced for $36 per pound — or $9 for a quarter-pound burger. Another recent study said that by addressing some technical and economic barriers, the cost of production of lab-made meat of more than $10,000 per pound today could be lowered to about $2.50 per pound over the next nine years. But that hasn’t happened yet, not by any means.

With a bow to consumers, at today’s National Association of State Departments of Agriculture’s 2023 Annual Meeting, NASDA members advocated for standards that ensure clear and consistent labeling for cell-based meat products, also referred to as cultivated, or cultured, meat. 

Plant-based meats

As for plant-based meats, also called “meatless meats,” most are made from pea or soy protein, a type of fat and some sort of binder. But they may also contain natural and artificial flavors to make the product taste more like meat. They come in all forms, among them Whopper burgers, IKEA’s plant balls, sausages, Bratwursts, meatballs, chicken patties and chicken nuggets.

In an earlier interview, Jeremy Kindlund, a vegetarian, and manager of the Sedro-Woolley Farmers Market, said he was happy to be able to eat an Impossible Burger while at the T-Mobile Stadium in Seattle watching a game.

“I think it’s a great thing that people are eating more plant-based foods,” he said. “It’s good for the environment and also a lot better than having mass-produced meat.”

Ironically enough, some vegetarians who tried the meatless burgers told reporters that they were “disgusted” by them because they tasted so much like meat.

Taste aside, price is also an issue here. Plant-based meat products cost more than meat from animals raised conventionally, but only about $1 per pound or several dollars or so more. But for families on a tight budget, that can be a deal breaker.

Footprint on the land

For some people, the environment comes into the picture.

In an earlier interview with “Business Insider,” Pat Brown, founder of Impossible Foods, said that the reason why he cares so much about replacing meat is that we’re in the “advanced stages of the biggest environmental catastrophe that our planet has ever faced” and that animal-based agriculture is a big part of that.

It comes down to the footprint of livestock on the land. For example, an analysis of the Impossible Burger found that its carbon footprint is 89 percent smaller than a burger made from beef. It also uses 87 percent less water and 96 percent less land.

Even so, it’s not like the total switch from conventional meat to plant-based meat is going to happen overnight, even though it is gaining in popularity. For that to happen, plant-based meats are going to rev up in scale. Big time. And considering how many meat animals are being raised across the world — and how large the world’s population is — that’s going to take a long time, especially since so many people in developing countries want to eat meat, and that’s a huge market waiting to happen.

Are they healthy?

Brooke Whitney, a Senior Communications Associate at UPSIDE Foods, told Verywell, a website providing health and wellness information by health professionals, that the nutrition profile of each cultivated meat “will depend on the specific product and company” that produces it.

But she said that UPSIDE Foods’ chicken “has fewer calories and lower fat than an average piece of conventionally-produced chicken.”

Melissa Mitri, MS, RD, a registered dietitian,  told Verywell that “lab-grown meat would likely contain fewer antibiotics and additives, than meat that’s been conventionally produced.

Meanwhile, a study on plant-based meats showed that fiber consumption was higher and saturated fat consumption was lower when eating plant-based meat instead of animal-based meat. And another pointed to heart-health benefits provided by plant-based meats.

Even so, some studies say that many of these plant-based foods are made from highly refined and processed ingredients and often contain more sodium than animal meats — sometimes up to six times or more.

Enter the hybrids

According to Steakholder Foods Ltd., an international company headquartered in Israel and at the forefront of the cultivate-meat revolution, the first commercial cultured meat products available will likely be hybrids.

The thinking behind this is that combining plant-based meats and cultivated meats could help boost the wider adoption of both.

And with more people watching what they eat based on concerns such as climate change, animal welfare and their own health, hybrid meats would give them the chance to eat them without compromising their values — while at the same time helping reduce their carbon footprint.

Not surprisingly, much of this comes down to price. By mixing the plant and animal proteins together the cost will come way down. 

Proteins such as soy and pea commonly used in plant-based meats are produced on a mass scale for very low prices. But that’s not the case with ingredients such as animal cells, amino acids, serums, fatty acids, sugars, salts, vitamins and other elements cells needed “to grow” cultivated meat. 

In December 2022, the Dutch food company Meatable and plant-based Love Handle in Singapore announced they’d be investing $6 million to establish the world’s first hybrid kitchen and innovation center in Singapore this year. The goal is to mass produce and release a wide variety of hybrid meat products to restaurants by next year and to supermarkets by 2025.

The company’s thinking is that if you want to make a dent in animal husbandry and the environment by the next generation, the product requires mass adoption. And that comes down to affordability.

Alternative protein and the future

From a global perspective, the hybrids would also help provide the world’s growing population with more varied protein sources.

“I’m all for anything that provides us with a safe food source,” said retired farmer Dick Klein in Western Washington. “We never know if in the future some sort of fungus, virus or livestock disease will wipe out a lot of our livestock. Right now we’re dealing with avian flu, which has already caused the deaths of more than 131 million domestic poultry flocks.

“If meat production has to move into a lab for a safe source, so be it,” he said. “Farming has changed. We’re really banking on alternative sources — anything that helps improve environmental quality and food and that offers health benefits.

Pointing out that today’s way of farming is based on an agricultural revolution that began 10,000 years ago, Klein said he’s heard some farmers say it’s time we change the way we farm and feed people.

“We’ll need alternative ways to feed people,” he said. “You can bet on that.”

What about food safety?

Bypass the cow, or other livestock raised for food, and you bypass a lot of food-safety problems, say advocates of alternative proteins such as plant-based meats and lab meats.

Uma Valeti, co-founder and owner of UPSIDE Foods, said food safety is an important part of his company’s corporate philosophy.

“Because we do not need to slaughter animals, we expect a much lower risk of fecal contamination, E. coli and salmonella among others,” he said in a previous interview. “Similarly, the risk of disease — swine flu, mad cow disease, avian flu and more — will be greatly reduced in our process.” 

He pointed out that when multiple animals are used for ground meat products, as is usually the case, bacteria from one animal can contaminate large volumes of products such as hamburgers and turkey dogs.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that pathogens in conventionally produced meat are the most common sources of fatal food-related infections.

53 hazards

On the other side of the fence, when considering if lab-grown meat is safe, an in-depth analysis by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), and a World Health Organization expert panel pointed to 53 potential health hazards. 

“As commercial cell-based food production grows, there is an increasing urgency to answer one of the consumers’ most important questions: is it safe to eat?” said a press release about this.

For this reason, FAO, in collaboration with WHO, has produced a publication, “Food safety aspects of cell-based foods“(“Food%20Safety%20Aspects%20of%20Cell,for%20cell%2Dbased%20food%20production). The 134-page document, based on extensive scientific literature, aims to share the current state of knowledge with relevant stakeholders and inform consumers about the food safety aspects of cell-based foods.

The results, according to the report, show problems and negative health consequences can include contamination with heavy metals, microplastics and nanoplastics, allergens such as additives to improve the taste and texture of these products, chemical contaminants, toxic components, antibiotics and prions.

According to the report, the focus should be on the specific materials, inputs, ingredients, potential allergens and equipment that play a particular role in cell-based food production.

At a recent symposium organized by the Animal Task Force and the Belgian Association for Meat Science and Technology in Brussels, Peer Ederer from Goal Sciences spoke about lab-grown meat, highlighting that lab-grown meat is not the answer. Despite the billions of dollars invested in cellular agriculture, as Paul Wood and others show, cultured meat will not be a true substitute for natural meat.

Then, too, a 2019 Oxford study shows that production in very energy-intensive bioreactors could have worse long-term environmental consequences than livestock farming when looking at CO2 emissions. 

Bottomline, says the study: Extreme caution is needed as there is still too little information and insufficient data on the actual safety of lab-grown meat.

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