Once you get beyond the “ick” factor, lab-grown meat may have profound ethical and environmental advantages. But will it be good for our dogs and cats (and us) and should it be used in pet food?
Lab-grown meat? It sounds like something out of a science fiction story, but it’s a concept being explored by a growing number of companies. This article takes a closer look at lab-grown meat and how it’s made – and more importantly, whether or not it should be used in pet foods.
How Is Lab-Grown Meat Made?
Also known as cultivated meat, clean meat, and cultured meat, it’s made primarily with muscle cells that (with one exception) have attached themselves to a framework known as “scaffolding.” Companies are also looking at ways to incorporate fat and connective tissue into the process, to make the result look, feel, and taste more like the meat that comes straight from an animal.
In the U.S., companies are concentrating on lab-grown beef for humans, and one is using rabbit tissue for dogs and mouse tissue for cats.
Fast fact: One company has included animal muscle genes in a strain of yeast to make it produce amino acids, and is marketing it as “animal protein”; however, this is a GMO process, and does not follow the procedures used for lab-grown meat.
Stem Cells Are Used
You can’t grow muscle from just any muscle cells. Mature muscle cells die if they are separated from a body. The only kind of muscle cell that will grow in a lab is a muscle stem cell, which forms new muscle cells in the body as well as in the lab setting. One stem cell can potentially create a trillion new cells. Mature muscle cells can get larger or smaller, but they can’t multiply to make new cells.
Stem cells can live in a petri dish, and will multiply for a very long time to make many single immature muscle cells that continue multiplying. Under the right conditions, those cells will change into mature elongated muscle cells that look like those in meat.
Originally, beef muscle stem cells were fed with fetal calf serum. Now, companies are growing cells using various combinations of nutrients to create an ideal formula that will let them grow and thrive without having to rely on other animal products. After enough cells have grown into a small lump, they are mixed with small tubes, called “scaffolding”, that will help change them from single round cells to the long muscle fibers seen in mature muscle. Scaffolding was originally made from gelatin, another animal product, but companies are increasingly using plant products instead. Scaffolding makes lab-grown meat feel more like meat when it is in your mouth, which is important for products made for humans.
Because dogs and cats aren’t as picky about meat texture as people are, developing cultured meat for animals can be done without the scaffolding, especially for use in pet treats. In fact, one treat company, which is working to create lab-grown meat for animals, skips the scaffolding.
Fast fact: The final growth process is done in a “bioreactor”—a large stainless steel structure similar to those used for brewing beer.
If lab-grown meat actually becomes the nutritional equivalent of pasture-grown meat, then the ethical and environmental advantages are enormous. If everything except the meat stem cells can come from plants, millions of animal lives would be saved. Additionally, if companies can be trusted to use healthy amounts of all necessary vitamins, minerals, and amino acids, in their natural forms and proper proportions, and forget about hormones to make cells grow bigger and faster, the end product could benefit people, dogs and cats, as well as the environment. We’re currently a long way from that, but time will tell if lab-grown meat will ever become an acceptable alternative to regular meat.