A burger by any other name: What do we call lab-grown meat?

Meat manufactured in factories, without animals, could soon find its way to your dinner plate. So-called 'lab-grown meat' has been in development for years. CBC food columnist Khalil Akhtar explains why some lobbyists now want lab-grown meat to get a new name.

As it moves closer to grocery stores, advocates search for ways to make animal-free meat more palatable

The first lab-grown hamburger was built from cattle stem cells and taste-tested in 2013. Lobbying efforts are underway to set regulations to allow animal-free meat to be sold. (CBC)

Meat manufactured in factories, without animals, could soon find its way to your dinner plate.

So-called "lab-grown meat" has been in development for years. Now, lobbying efforts are underway to set regulations which would allow the stuff to be sold.

CBC food columnist Khalil Akhtar explains why some lobbyists also want lab-grown meat to get a new name.

What's the problem with calling it 'lab meat'?

Bruce Friedrich is executive director of the Good Food Institute, a non-profit lobby group for meat alternatives. (Bruce Friedrich/Twitter)
"Clean meat" is the name preferred by the Good Food Institute — a non-profit lobby group for plant based meat alternatives and the stuff he calls clean meat.

"Animal-free meat" or "cultured meat" are other alternatives.

Whatever it's called, you've probably heard of the stuff. 

Basically, producers would culture animal cells, and essentially grow animal protein in a factory-like setting.

Bruce Friedrich, the director of the Good Food Institute, says we should picture a brewery rather than a slaughterhouse. And that's why he likes the "clean meat" label.

"Our main problem with 'lab-grown' meat is that it's inaccurate," he said.

"Nobody will be buying lab-grown meat. They will be buying factory-produced meat. And what it will look like at scale is basically meat fermenters. It will look like a brewery."

What's the appeal of 'clean meat'?

Whatever we call it, Friedrich says meat produced without animal products will solve a lot of problems in our food supply system.

It could mean an end, for example, to animals in tiny cages, factory-style killing floors, and forest degradation for farm land.

"Instead of the inefficiency of feeding crops to animals, and the animals burning off the vast majority of the calories that they consume ... a far more efficient process [is one] in which the cells are growing in tanks," Friedrich said, calling it a "cleaner" and "less morally objectionable" system.

He even envisions what he calls "your friendly neighbourhood meat brewery" giving tours and live streaming its operations online. 

"It's cleaner, it's more transparent, it's significantly more efficient," he said.

"So the price points, once they're at scale, should be lower than the price points for raising animals and getting your meat that way."

How far are we from animal-free meat?

You can't get it at the grocery store yet, but the concept has moved well beyond theoretical science.

There are lab scientists who have produced the stuff — and even eaten it. In 2013, thanks to support from a Google co-founder, a lab-grown hamburger was tasted in the U.K.

Earlier this year, a research company called Memphis Meats held a taste testing for its cultured meatball.

That company plans to create burgers, hot dogs and sausages as well, with its first products on grocery store shelves within five years, the company projects.

During last year's Wired 2015 conference, a company called Modern Meadow held a taste testing for what it calls "steak chips," a product made of cultured meat.

So far, these taste testings have essentially been expensive social experiments, and a very public demonstration of where the technology stands.

Friedrich compares it to the self-driving car — a technology also widely tested but largely unavailable to consumers. But scaled up, he says, the idea of animal-free meat could change the way millions of people eat.

"Our hope is that the meat industry will get invested in both plant-based and clean meat sooner rather than later," he said.

"In fact, there is an industry journal called Meatingplace ... and the editor's letter earlier this year actually encouraged the meat industry to refashion itself as 'protein supply,' and to get into the clean meat space, both with research and development, and with mergers and acquisition. 

That's something I think the meat industry would be smart to do, and we certainly hope that they do it."


Khalil Akhtar

Food Columnist

Khalil Akhtar is a syndicated food columnist for CBC Radio. He takes a weekly look at some of the surprising aspects of your daily diet. Khalil is based in Victoria, B.C.