Which? revealed in March this year that it had uncovered meat labelled as ‘British’ in supermarkets which was actually from South America. In 2014 Which? discovered that over a third of the 60 lamb curries and kebabs they bought in London and Birmingham contained other meats.
Remember the scandal of 2013 where meat sold as beef contained 29% horse meat? And also, in fish and chip shops, a 2021 Guardian analysis of more than 9,000 seafood samples from restaurants, fishmongers and supermarkets in more than 30 countries found that 36% were mislabelled, exposing seafood fraud on a global scale.
Cultivated meat companies around the world have been throwing millions into producing a product that looks like meat, chews like meat, and tastes exactly like meat. So in the end, will there be any way of distinguishing it from farmed meat?
Because it’s expensive to produce, when cultivated meat hits the market it will be at a far higher price point to factory-farmed meat, so the temptation for fraud will be great. It’s almost inevitable that unscrupulous marketers will be mislabelling cheaper factory-farmed slaughtered meat as cultivated meat to sell at inflated prices.
Does this really matter? It certainly does if you’re a vegan or vegetarian.
These cultivated meat producers have now created a product that uses virtually no animal in its production at all, making it, debatably, suitable for vegans (this is a moot point; see Viva!’s take here, Veganuary’s take here, and on the flipside, a different take from Wired here).
Eat Just’s cultivated meat arm GOOD Meat has declared that cells used to make cultivated meat can be taken from a feather or from an egg. And for lamb meat, the cells could be harvested from wool.
The team at Eat Just claims they collected animal cells by waiting for a feather to naturally fall from a chicken named Ian and that the nuggets that were produced from Ian’s cells were later eaten outside, while Ian roamed around nearby. This may sound a little creepy, especially if you’re Ian, but it demonstrates the incredible possibilities. Mosa Meat has stated that from just 1.5 grams of animal cells, they can produce over 80,000 beef burgers.
Even the growth media, which once contained calves’ blood is very close now to being free from any animal-derived product. This change has happened only partly to appeal to vegan tastes, but more as an exercise to reduce the price; the cost to produce or buy the calf blood serum is around £1,000 per litre, which puts the price to produce a 100 gram beef burger above £50.
Scientists like Petra Hanga from Quest Meat have been working hard to find an alternative protein-rich growth media, to bring down costs, and in doing so this makes it “vegan-friendly” by proxy. Quest Meat is trialling alternatives such as algae or mungbean.
Can meat ever be vegan?
The Vegan Society website states: “Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment…”
The production of cultivated meat appears to adhere to this principle.
It then goes on to say: “In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”
So technically yes – a feather is derived from a chicken.
Marie Gibbons — a vegan herself and a founder of Re:Meat, a cultivated meat startup based in Sweden — says: “This is the first time that it has been possible to eat animal products without actually harming animals, so I think the current definition of veganism may end up shifting. Veganism was never really about not eating animal products, it’s about not hurting animals. And since we are now able to eat animal products without hurting them, veganism can now include using animal products, as long as they don’t involve exploitation or cruelty!”
So are vegans resting their hopes on cultivated meat giving them the chance to taste bacon again or to chomp down on a summer BBQ burger? Maybe.
Would they be likely to eat it if they can’t be certain what they’re eating is ‘good meat’?
Clearly, there should be some way to distinguish the two types. Branding and labelling can mostly be copied. Perhaps if they have hand-picked companies selling the products exclusively it will reduce much of the mis-selling? But there is always a chance of it still happening.
Alternatively, cultivated meat could be distinguished by taste? While the many startup companies around the world are concentrating on making cultivated meat taste the same as farmed meat, they might need to start thinking about making cultivated meat taste better than farmed meat – more delicious – more succulent, mixed with mango proteins or lemon grass, delicious in a way that slaughtered meat could never compete with.
Maybe it’s time to research taste perfection and attempt to emulate it in cultivated meat. I mean really, isn’t this the definition of reinventing the wheel.
Hello, we already have wheels.
The possibility that vegans accept cultivated meat as something they can eat in principle is seriously eroded by the slightest possibility that it came from a slaughtered animal.
But then it was never really meant for vegans, was it? And did they ever really want it anyway? They’ve managed perfectly well this long without it and plant-based alternatives are really very good these days.
So, perhaps we’re worrying over nothing.
This was a guest post submission from Alex Crisp, host of the The Future of Food podcast in which he discusses the food landscape in the near and distant future with academics, business leaders, and industry influencers.