Lab-grown meat has a P.R. problem

Leading scientists agree that cultured meat products won't give you cancer, but the industry doesn't have the decades of data to prove it, so it's trying to avoid the question instead.

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Bloomberg Businessweek

Still life photograph by Beth Sacca for Bloomberg Businessweek.

If you avoid meat to cut down on animal cruelty, carbon emissions or both, your options are a lot better than they were a decade ago, which is to say they’re … fine. For people who can afford to pay a premium, veggie burgers and nuggets from the likes of Beyond Meat Inc. and Impossible Foods Inc. are a much tastier option than the average imitation-meat entrees of the past. What they aren’t, though, is meat—and many such products are so packed with salt and saturated fat that they probably shouldn’t be a staple of most diets. There is, however, another option on the way for those in search of better guilt-free protein: growing meat from cells in a lab, without raising any living animals for slaughter. Yes, really.

Thank the biotech revolution. Under the right conditions, animal cells can be grown in a petri dish, or even at scale in factories full of stainless-steel drums. For decades, companies such as Pfizer Inc. and Johnson & Johnson have cultured large volumes of cells to produce vaccines, monoclonal antibodies and other biotherapeutics. Now the idea is that we might as well eat these cells, too.

The Big Three startups in the field—Believer Meats, Eat Just and Upside Foods—have raised more than $1.2 billion in combined venture funding to bring products to grocery shelves. From the Bay Area to the Middle East, their research facilities and pilot plants are producing small amounts of chicken that, by most accounts, you’d be hard-pressed to tell didn’t come from a slaughterhouse. Late last year, Upside became the first to receive the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s informal blessing to bring its products to market. All three companies have announced their first partnerships with restaurants in anticipation of a fuller regulatory thumbs-up.

Lab-grown meat from the U.S. is presented in the Disgusting Food Museum on December 6, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images.

Some of the companies call their products cultured meat, or cultivated meat, or cell-cultured meat. All of them stress the M-word. “This is meat,” Upside Foods Inc. Chief Executive Officer Uma Valeti said at an industry conference a little more than a year ago. “Calling it anything else, I think, is going to be misleading.” On a cellular level, alternative protein advocates say, it’s no different. And that’s 99.9 percent true.

The big honking asterisk is that normal meat cells don’t just keep dividing forever. To get the cell cultures to grow at rates big enough to power a business, several companies, including the Big Three, are quietly using what are called immortalized cells, something most people have never eaten intentionally. Immortalized cells are a staple of medical research, but they are, technically speaking, pre-cancerous and can be, in some cases, fully cancerous.

Don’t worry: Prominent cancer researchers tell Bloomberg Businessweek that because the cells aren’t human, it’s essentially impossible for people who eat them to get cancer from them, or for the precancerous or cancerous cells to replicate inside people at all. You’d be better off worrying about the nitrates (linked with cancer) or fecal matter (a source of deadly infections) found in farm-raised meat. And cow tumors sometimes wind up in store-bought ground chuck, too. Of course, the facts might not matter much if ranchers or other players in the traditional meat industry felt threatened enough to declare a public relations war. It’s all too easy to imagine misleading Fox News chyrons about chicken tumors and cancer burgers.

So while cultured meat companies are desperate to avoid their products being fixed in the public’s mind as a bunch of lab experiments, they also realize that an extended fight about the scientific technicalities of cellular profiles risks forging exactly that association. Even if your nouveau meat doesn’t cause cancer and isn’t exactly made from cancer, having to say so repeatedly will inevitably turn off a great many potential customers. As one executive in the field told me, with a dose of comic understatement, there’s a chance the whole thing really “might bother some people.”

Eat Just Inc. declined to comment for this story. Believer Meats Chief Scientific Officer Yaakov Nahmias says that his company uses immortalized cells in its cultured chicken and that his team has somehow, by means he says even they don’t understand, created immortalized cells that don’t share any genetic signatures with cancer cells. (Two cell biologists I shared his comments with expressed skepticism.) Eric Schulze, Upside Foods vice president for global scientific and regulatory affairs, says his company stands by its FDA nod and its safety protocols. “Many of the inputs and processes we use have been used for decades or even centuries in food production,” he said in a statement. “Our product is as safe as the chicken you eat every day.”

A nugget made from lab-grown chicken meat during a December 2020 media presentation in Singapore, the first country to allow the sale of meat. Photo by Nicholas Yeo/AFP via Getty Images.

Nonetheless, interviews with dozens of current and former employees, executives, investors, analysts and other insiders, as well as reviews of the companies’ regulatory filings and past statements, make clear that the cultured meat industry is anxious about its use of immortalized cells and is doing what it can to avoid the subject. In part, this is because scientists aren’t as quick as journalists to use the words “essentially impossible” in writing. Despite the informal scientific consensus around the safety of immortalized cells, there just aren’t any long-term health studies to prove it.

Over the past couple of years, this potential PR nightmare has been a recurring theme among insiders, including, occasionally, at conferences. “That’s a thing that comes up pretty often,” Kimberly Ong, a consultant at the biotech safety firm Vireo Advisors LLC, said during her remarks at a June event in Brooklyn. Several prominent startups have chosen to avoid using immortalized cells entirely, a slower and more technologically demanding path to market.

“The cultured meat and related food products in the Tasting are experimental,” the company’s waiver reads. “The properties are not completely known.”

The leading startups, for their part, are pressing ahead, nodding to their potential vulnerability with the occasional creepy waiver. At Upside’s facility in Emeryville, California, where the company spends weeks at a time growing poultry cells in drums, investors and pesky reporters tasting a cooked version of the final product have been asked to first acknowledge the lack of long-term health data. “The cultured meat and related food products in the Tasting are experimental,” the company’s waiver reads. “The properties are not completely known.”

Refusing to engage with the issue could ultimately cost cultured meat companies, and maybe the rest of us, too. The companies still have a long way to go before their pilot projects lead to affordable mass production, but if they can overcome those barriers in the next decade or two, they stand to reinvent the trillion-dollar meat business and humanity’s relationship with the rest of the animal kingdom. If they’re wrongly dismissed as Frankencancer, or simply rejected because they weird people out, then overprocessed veggie burgers will remain our best alternative for a long, long time.

Alt-protein evangelists tend to make cell-cultured products sound sort of miraculous. Just take a biopsy—a cell sample—from a cow, pig, chicken or salmon and then grow it, ad infinitum, into burgers, bacon, breasts or steaks. “You just need a cell,” Eat Just CEO Josh Tetrick said in June, during a speech at a factory groundbreaking in Singapore. “From that one cell, you can make billions of pounds of meat.”

But normal cells procured from humans and livestock don’t actually divide forever. Left to their own devices, they’ll multiply maybe a few dozen times before they stop growing (a state called senescence) or die. This is what’s known as the Hayflick limit, named for a famous early researcher on aging, and it’s a major problem for any company that wants to run a cultured meat factory. You’d never be able to grow cultured meat at scale using normal cells without collecting frequent biopsies from a herd of donor animals, which is expensive, messy and not quite cruelty-free.

That’s where immortalized cells come in. They’ve been used in medical research since the early 1950s, when the first and most famous immortal cell line—derived from the cervical cancer cells of a woman named Henrietta Lacks—was successfully grown in a lab. Lacks is widely viewed as a victim of failed medical ethics and systemic racism; her cells, which have gone on to generate billions of dollars in economic value, were taken without her knowledge or permission. They’ve also saved lives. The so-called HeLa line of cells first enabled researchers to continue study without fresh samples from living humans or animals, leading to breakthrough discoveries in oncological and immunological science. Today, AstraZeneca Plc and J&J’s Covid-19 vaccines are grown using immortalized human kidney and retinal cells, respectively. The process is a lot like making cultured meat. Immortal cells are grown in a big steel drum called a bioreactor, ultimately generating thousands of pounds of cell mass.

The idea of eating immortalized cells started to take hold in 2008, when the activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals offered a million-dollar prize to anyone who could grow 10,000 pounds of meat cells by 2011. PETA got the idea from a handful of scientists who saw the promise of emerging 3D-printing technology. While most of their peers dreamed of printable human hearts and kidneys putting an end to organ donor waitlists, some of that field’s pioneers, including Vladimir Mironov, a biology professor at the Medical University of South Carolina, argued that the technology could also yield a steady supply of cruelty-free meat. Mironov also tended to make grand pronouncements about the idea being “the inescapable future of humanity,” earning him some jabs in mainstream venues, including The Colbert Report. Stephen Colbert dismissed the National Science Foundation grant-winning researcher as a quack and his early lab samples as “shmeat,” short for “shit meat.” PETA’s million-dollar prize went unclaimed.

Just a few years later, though, the field seemed far less like a joke, and several startups began to look serious. In 2017, Upside raised a $17 million round of venture funding from the likes of Bill Gates, Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and meatpacking giant Cargill Inc. Thus began a multibillion-dollar arms race that made cultured meat one of Silicon Valley’s buzziest industries, following the trajectory of hype for fake-meat companies such as Beyond and Impossible. Absent from most news articles and term sheets, however, was any mention of immortalized cells.

Cells become immortal in human bodies all the time, by mutating to bypass senescence—and mutating some more to evade the immune system, which generally tries to kill off such mutants. Cultured meat companies induce these changes via genetic modification or by forcing normal cells to reproduce until some of them mutate. The resulting cells can divide forever, defying the normal limits of growth. This also makes them unmistakably more like cancer cells than they used to be, says Robert Weinberg, the pioneering Massachusetts Institute of Technology biologist who proved cancer is a genetic disease in the 1980s. “If a cell is immortalized, that implies that it’s already completed one of the prerequisites to become a cancer cell,” he says.

Critically, however, there’s no evidence that cultured meat cells are going to become cancerous in a diner’s body. Most of the scientists I spoke with for this story say that worst case, our digestive enzymes would break down any animal cancer cells we ate. If we wanted to, we could eat malignant chicken tumors by the bucketload. “It’s essentially impossible for a cell from one species to gain a foothold in the tissues of another species,” says Weinberg. “So even if one were to take highly malignant cells from a cow and drink them, I don’t see what the problem would be.”

And yet “cancer” is a terrifying word. How can the makers of cultured meat prove to regulators and skeptics that there’s nothing to worry about? “The best way is to give it to people and then ask them 20 years later or 30 years later, ‘Has any of you gotten cancer at a higher-than-normal rate?’ ” says Weinberg. “But that’s not a practical experiment.” The likeliest path for companies to set more people at ease is to win government approvals and put their products on plates.

In November the FDA sent Upside Foods a “no questions” letter in response to its application for approval, clearing the way for its chicken’s final approval by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The FDA’s safety assessment shows that its evaluation criteria included the chicken’s potential for contamination and adulteration. It also notes that Upside monitors its immortalized cells to make sure they don’t become cancerous or otherwise wig out. In a footnote, the agency concluded that even fully cancerous cells would be safe to eat because they stop growing after they leave the bio-reactor, and cooking and digestion will break them down harmlessly. “We did not identify any properties of the cells as described that would render them different from other animal cells with respect to safety for food use,” the FDA said.

Even with the Upside approval, though, the uncomfortable truth is that none of the companies has data to prove their safety beyond every last doubt.

To get around the problem, some startups are keeping immortalized cells out of their recipes. Aleph Farms Ltd. is using naturally immortal embryonic stem cells to try to avoid what CEO Didier Toubia calls a potential problem with “consumer acceptance.” (He didn’t use the word “cancer.”) IntegriCulture CEO Yuki Hanyu says his cultured meat startup is eschewing the proven science of immortalized cells in favor of experiments with cells taken directly from living animals, precisely to avoid being falsely labeled as cancerous. “There will be someone who will be poking at this issue,” he says. “And it could basically flare up.”

These startups are at much earlier stages than the Big Three. “You have to bear in mind, the immortalized technology is 30 years old,” says Ramiro Alberio, a reproductive biologist at the UK’s University of Nottingham who recently developed new cell lines for cultured meat using embryonic stem cells. “I don’t even have a website. I licensed my cell lines to multiple companies based basically on word-of-mouth.”

Meanwhile, the companies using immortalized cells are already trying to scale up. Eat Just has announced plans to build a U.S. facility with 10 66,000 gallon bioreactors, enough to produce 30 million pounds of product a year. This suggests the company is betting that it can overcome any PR blowback, along with cost. But if recent history is any guide, it won’t be easy. In early 2021, after Gates said in an interview that rich nations should switch to 100 percent plant-based and lab-grown beef, the backlash was swift. Before long, Tucker Carlson was on Fox News asking a guy in a cowboy hat why “they hate beef so much.” Last year, Marjorie Taylor Greene, the far-right Republican member of Congress from Georgia, accused Bill Gates of conspiring to force Americans to eat “fake meat” from a “peach tree dish.” Her malaprop drew jeering headlines, but it also resonated on the American right. And this was all before anybody used the word “cancer.”

For now, the companies seem to be sticking with silence as their strategy. In so doing, however, they’re ceding a critical opportunity to demystify their products and head off fearmongering. Even with more than a billion VC dollars on the line and the FDA on board, the direction this conversation takes might make all the difference. When it comes to the human appetite, novelty can be intriguing—or it can really gross you out.

That tension was clear on the first day of that June industry conference in Brooklyn, when a startup called Wildtype hosted a surprise tasting of its cultured salmon for VIPs including Eric Adams, New York City’s (mostly) vegan mayor. Several attendees told me the tasting was a profoundly emotional experience that even brought one of them to tears, that to them it represented the almost Biblical gift of something from nothing—no animals harmed in the making of this meal. Adams, however, didn’t seem so inspired. As the tasting got under way, he excused himself and left without trying the fish.

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