Lab-grown meat, touted as the “cruelty-free” food of the future by everyone from the World Economic Forum to Hollywood mega-celebs like Leonardo DiCaprio, may have a fatal problem, according to a new Bloomberg story.
“Immortalized cells are a staple of medical research, but they are, technically speaking, precancerous and can be, in some cases, fully cancerous… [but d]on’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.”
– Bloomberg BusinessWeek
The problem is that the materials used to make the product – “immortalized cell lines” – replicate forever, just like cancer. Which means, in effect, that they are cancer. Although these cell lines are widely used in scientific research, they’ve never been used to produce food before.
Industry types are “confident” that eating such products poses no risk – although there isn’t any hard data – but it’s not difficult to see, even if the products are “proven” safe, how people might be put off by the thought they’re eating a glorified tumor.
All the evidence suggests that the most prominent producers of these new products – including the “Big Three” startups, Believer Meat, Eat Just and Upside Foods – are doing their best to avoid confronting the issue in public. But whether they’ll be able to keep do so after this latest blast of high-profile negative publicity, remains to be seen.
The story comes at a time of growing difficulty for new alternatives to traditional animal products, especially so-called “plant-based meats.”
At the beginning of the month, we reported on the ongoing problems faced by Impossible Foods, which is laying off 20 percent of its workforce, or nearly 140 staff.
Plant-based meats have gone from double-digit growth to double-digit decline in the last year, with sales of refrigerated meat alternatives falling by 10.5 percent for the year to September 4 2022.
In response to another cover story from Bloomberg Businessweek, which labeled plant-based meats “just another fad,” Impossible took the bold step of taking out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times to counter the claims. Impossible’s new CEO, Peter McGuiness has put the company in a more confrontational stance, which includes denying the mounting evidence that his company, and others like it, are in serious trouble.
Beyond Meat, by contrast, has barely even been able to put on a brave face. Shares in the company plunged 75 percent in the first three quarters of the last year, and its flagship pilot collaboration with McDonald’s, the “McPlant Burger,” was discontinued by the fast-food giant.
LAB-GROWN MEAT: HYPE AND REALITY.
Massive amounts of money have already been raised by companies in the lab-grown meat segment of the alternative-foods industry. Believer Meat, Eat Just and Upside Foods – the “Big Three” – have raised $1.2 billion between in venture funding, in the hope that one day very soon their products will be sold in stores.
These new companies have the backing of organizations like the World Economic Forum, which has proposed a “Planetary Health Diet” built around plant-based and alternative protein sources. Activist celebrities are also providing very public support, as well as financing, for the new technology. In 2021, for instance, Leonardo DiCaprio bought an unspecified stake in two lab-grown meat companies, Mosa Meat and Aleph Farms, after an earlier investment in Beyond Meat.
In a press release to accompany his more recent investment, DiCaprio said, “One of the most impactful ways to combat the climate crisis is to transform our food system. Mosa Meat and Aleph Farms offer new ways to satisfy the world’s demand for beef, while solving some of the most pressing issues of current industrial beef production.”
At the end of last year, Upside passed a significant milestone for lab-grown meats when it became the first manufacturer to receive the necessary pre-approval from the FDA to bring its products to market.
Despite the apparently rosy outlook, however, it’s clear that there are potentially significant problems facing lab-grown meat products as they draw nearer to being available for general sale.
Companies like Upside and the other Big Three like to stress that their products actually are meat, and choose a variety of names such as “cultured meat” or “cell-cultured meat” to describe them. But the truth is, their products differ from typical animal cells in that they will replicate eternally if placed under the right conditions, just like cancer. This brings with it safety but also image concerns.
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 [Dr. Robert] 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.”
– Bloomberg BusinessWeek
While “prominent cancer researchers” reassured Bloomberg that, “because the cells aren’t human, it’s essentially impossible for people who eat them to get cancer from them,” or for the cells to go on replicating inside a human body, the truth is that there are no long-term safety data for consumption of “meat” produced from immortalized cell lines.
The first immortalized human cell line was produced from cancer cells taken from Henrietta Lacks in 1951, at Johns Hopkins Hospital, in Baltimore. The sample was taken from Lacks without her informed consent, and her treatment is held up as a test case of failed medical ethics. Despite the ethical controversy that still surrounds their use, the HeLa line of cells, as it is known, has been responsible for a number of scientific and medical breakthroughs. Immortalized human cells were used to develop a number of the COVID-19 shots, for example.
Producers of lab-grown meat favor immortal cell lines for much the same reasons scientists do. Since normal cells will only go on dividing so long, constant samples would need to be taken from animals to continue production. As well as increasing costs, this would also give the lie to the claim that lab-grown meats are “cruelty free,” since animals would still need to be raised – and ultimately slaughtered at some point – to produce them.
Some companies, like Eat Just, don’t want to talk about these concerns publicly, while others say that they have created cell lines that “don’t share any genetic signatures with cancer cells”, a claim which two of Bloomberg’s scientific advisors thought doubtful.
Recurring questions about safety won’t go away, sources told Bloomberg, even at insider events and conferences. Confidence isn’t improved by waivers attached to tasting samples which state that the products’ “properties are not completely known.” At a VIP tasting session for Wildtype, a manufacturer of “cultured salmon,” in Brooklyn last year, New York Mayor Eric Adams is reported to have left without trying the “fish.”
While the Big Three are continuing to push on with the use of immortalized cell lines – Eat Just is moving forward with a plan to construct enough bioreactors to produce 30 million pounds of their product a year – other lab-grown-meat companies are already abandoning them in favor of other, slower, methods of producing their “cultured meat.” Among them are Aleph, which Leonardo DiCaprio invested in, and IntegriCulture. Both companies recognize that the use of immortalized cell lines is likely to prove a high barrier to “consumer acceptance” of their products, as Aleph’s CEO puts it.
MAKING THE UNPALATABLE PALATABLE (KIND OF).
Consumer acceptance is already a serious problem for plant-based meats. Numerous scientific studies and surveys have shown that consumers don’t believe the taste or health claims made for the products. One amusing survey of Australian men revealed that 70 percent would prefer to lose ten years of their lives than give up meat.
Sympathetic researchers have counseled producers of plant-based alternatives to lean instead on social pressure to try and convince consumers that their products are preferable to their traditional counterparts. As one study concludes, “highlighting the social benefits of plant-based menu items would convince more consumers to choose them over meat-based options.”
This is a strategy companies like Oatly are now relying on heavily.
Although plant-based companies have faced public safety concerns of their own in the past, for novel ingredients like Impossible’s “heme,” which makes their burgers “bleed,” none have had to face the dreaded “C-word,” one of the most feared in the English language. There can be no doubt that consumers’ ears will prick if cancer is mentioned, especially if opponents of lab-grown meat, including livestock farmers, start to make a real noise about the risk. Social pressure is unlikely to work on consumers who fear there might be a risk, however small, that they could get cancer from eating – cancer.
Opponents would be fools not to exploit these potential fears. Producers of traditional animal products need all the help they can get to protect their livelihoods. Over the last three years, inflation has been weaponized to drive food transformation and this will only continue as it becomes clearer that people will not change their dietary habits voluntarily. In a shocking op-ed for the New York Times last summer, Annalise Griffin acknowledged that inflation could, and should, be used to get people to stop eating meat, whether they like it or not. Expect other tricks as well.
While it might seem distasteful to suggest advocates of traditional animal foods play up the risks of using immortalized cell lines as food, the anti-meat lobby has used fearmongering to great effect for the last eighty years. Since the 1940s, flimsy data and gerrymandered studies paid for by margarine manufacturers and other interested parties have helped drive us further and further away from the nutrient-dense foods that allowed our ancestors to thrive.
The results have been disastrous for our health, and indeed for our freedom. With so much at stake, if we don’t want to live in a “plant-based future,” now isn’t the time to hold back.
Reporting from The National Pulse.