For the past several months, I’ve been following registered dietician Diana Rodgers on LinkedIn. She’s the executive director of Global Food Justice Alliance, an organization whose mandate is to advocate “for the right of all people to choose nutrient-dense such as meat, milk, and eggs, which are critical for nutritious, environmentally sustainable, and equitable food systems that can sustain both human life and the planet.”
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I started following her because I enjoy her commentary and perspective on food. She understands that agriculture plays an important role for both human and environmental health.
She is also not afraid to hold back on her opinions, which is refreshing. Not enough folks who support agriculture and food production do that, but non-supporters certainly do.
A recent post by Rodgers is worthy of broader attention. She’d been interviewed for a New York Post article, and told the writer she’d “rather eat my shoe” than cultivated meat.
The interview was in response to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announcement June 21 that it had approved the sale of lab-grown ‘chicken’ by two companies, Upside Foods and Good Meat.
Cultivated meat is derived from a sample of animal cells fed a nutrient-rich solution and grown in steel bioreactors, in a process known as cellular agriculture or cell cultivation.
Rodger pointed out several reasons why she thinks eating a hamburger from McDonald’s is better than eating one made from cultivated meat. But it isn’t because of fear or the “ick” factor.
She said it’s very expensive to produce cell-cultivated meat. A well-researched January 2023 article by Ali Francis in culinary magazine Bon Appetit states a pound of cell-cultured meat would cost roughly $17 to make, compared to $2 for regular meat (all figures in U.S. dollars).
In the journey from the lab to the grocery store, that burger becomes $40, and to the restaurant, $100.
This is considerably cheaper than the world’s first cultivated meat burger, which cost $330,000. It was created by a professor at Maastricht University and was funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin. It debuted at a news conference in London, England in 2013, with the purpose of showing what could be done in the future with cell-cultivated meat.
The manufacturing process has been scaled since that first press conference, but according to sources cited in the Bon Appetit article, in order to make it cost-effective for consumers, further and much more significant scaling is required. And scientists aren’t sure the process will work as well at the scale needed for more mass production.
The second, and more important, factor why Rodgers doesn’t support cultured meat is its nutritional value. She said nutritional information is lacking, telling the New York Post “I have yet to see a life cycle assessment on the production of it. We don’t have any public data.”
It’s concerning that dieticians are not privy to the nutritional facts of cultivated meat, although they do exist, if for government eyes only. In the first stage of regulatory approval, the U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA) was given this information.
My question is, if the original animal cells are grown in a nutrient-rich solution, will the cells utilize these nutrients in the same way as they would if they grew in the ‘traditional’ biological manner? I can’t find any research on that.
Cultivated meat certainly has appeal for some conscious consumers. For those who oppose animal slaughter for food, it offers a protein option that they consider more humane.
Although cultivation requires cells from live animals, harvesting these cells doesn’t kill the animal.
For those who want to be more environmentally conscious eaters, cultivated meat allows them to still eat ‘meat’ without the need for increasing land and inputs to raise more animals.
Growing ‘meat’ cells is only one piece of the cultivated meat pie. Getting the product to taste like meat is another point of contention for Rodgers, who notes cultivated meat should be considered an ultra-processed food product due to the amount of additives needed to get it to taste, look and feel appealing.
I attended an international trade show hosted by the Institute of Food Technologists several years ago, and was both amazed and horrified at the size and scope of companies selling products to enhance flavour and what the food industry calls ‘mouth-feel.’ This was during the beginning of the plant-based protein foods ramp-up, but it really gave me a new perspective on the realities of creating so-called healthier or more environmentally friendly foods.
Yes, cultivated meat will be competition for real meat at some point in the future, but I think we are still likely decades away from seeing this reality.
Consumer acceptance may be a real challenge, as will production costs.
I agree with Rodgers — I’d rather eat my shoe than cultivated meat. At least I have some idea of what I’ll be eating.