The Healthcare Business Podcast Series: The Future of Cultured Meat

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This week on The Healthcare Business Podcast, George spoke with Ana Vasconcelos, a biologist currently working on her Postdoctoral Fellowship at John Hopkins University. Vasconcelos, from Brazil, has worked in labs all around the world, from Japan to Spain, Brazil, and the United States. She studies molecular biology and works on projects such as creating alternative energy from electric eels and using technology to save endangered fish. At John Hopkins University, Ana leads projects on molecular biology and cancer research. However, on this week’s episode, she and George spoke about the development of cultured meats and the effect COVID has had on the production of cultured meats.

What Are Cultured Meats?

Cultured meat is made from harvesting muscle cells from living cows and then replicating the cells in a lab to create a piece of meat identical to the beef we eat. According to Maaschrict University, the meat is “biologically exactly the same as the meat tissue that comes from a cow.” Cultured meats have been studied and developed for years, but the COVID-19 pandemic birthed a sense of urgency to develop the meats for mass consumption.

So, how does the process work? Vasconcelos compares the aesthetics of it to a brewery, saying, “When you look at it, it’s pretty much like brewing a beer. It’s it really looks like fermentation.” The process right now is designed to create ground beef, and Ana recommends a short documentary, “The Future of Meat” on the Netflix series Explained, to learn more about the process of making cultured meats.

On the spread of disease through meat, Ana Vasconcelos says, “Any kind of system that involves an extremely high density of animals entails a big risk of disease transmission, and that’s what is happening right now. And in modern farming, we have little genetic diversity between the animals. So that facilitates the disease to spread very easily without much resistance.” Consumers saw the transmission of disease between animals as a threat after COVID-19 emerged as well; Bloomberg news reported in May that plant-based meat sales had risen 264% since the lockdown.

Benefits of Cultured Meats

Vasconcelos discusses the benefits of cultured meats with George on The Healthcare Business Podcast. Along with stopping the spread of disease between animals, she lists the environmental benefits of introducing cultured meats to consumers and the health benefits of cultured meats.

The main benefit of cultured meats over plant-based meat is that the cultured meats have “the promise of having exactly the same type of nutrition you can have from eating meat, because it’s coming from the animal. So in theory it has exactly the same things, the same nutrients, the same level of protein.” Alternatively, while plant-based meats may be a more sustainable option than animal-based meat, they are high in sodium. For this reason, Vasconcelos advocates for the consumption of cultured meat.

Cultured meat is also a more environmentally friendly option than the animal meats we consume now. Ana points out that at the rate the meat industry is growing, the land needed to maintain production will not be available by 2050. She’s not wrong – according to National Geographic, the world will have two billion more people to feed by 2050. Cultured meat reduces the need for mass amounts of animals on land and would transfer that area to set ups that resemble breweries, taking up less space and resources.

Disadvantages of Cultured Meats

Like everything, cultured meats have their disadvantages. The biggest disadvantage to cultured meats, according to Ana Vasconcelos, is that it simply is not ready for mass production and consumption. On the podcast, she says, “I think in order to really satisfy the production, and the consumers, you know, and decide what the people need and what other people are looking for, I would imagine [production will take] five to 10 years. It’s a very complicated process. And in order to really scale up for the whole world, I think it’s going to take a little bit longer.” While there are some companies, such as Mosa Meat, that market their cultured meat burgers online, they still note that they are “aiming for a first market introduction in the next few years.” So – don’t keep your eyes peeled at the grocery store just yet!

One issue with cultured meats that we don’t see in the production of other meat is that because they are created in a lab and replicated, there is room for genetic modifications. Ana explains what this means, that “when the cells just grow indefinitely, they start changing their behavior, and they can eventually change their genetics as well. So how safe that will be in the long term, for example. But at the same time, because I work in the lab, it’s possible to see [the changes]. You can see when the cells start changing the behavior, they start growing weird, they look funny, you know.” She also notes that just like any other food, “it is going to be inspected. It’s going to, it could be an interesting thing, because instead of – for example – you check for bacteria or viruses are in a normal meat, you’re going to check for genetics modifications [in cultured meat].

In any case, the production and consumption of cultured meats is years away. But Ana Vasoncelos brings up valid points – the spread of disease through meat production will continue past COVID-19 and the fears that consumers have about meat consumption can be solved through alternative meats. While cultured meats still have a way to go until they will be perfected for consumption, Ana’s plea to consumers to think about what we can do for the environment and future generations rings true. Make sure to listen to the full podcast for insights from Ana and George and subscribe to The Healthcare Business Podcast.

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