Frankenmeat: The Disturbing Reality of Lab-Grown Meat Production

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As the demand for sustainable meat alternatives soars, companies like Upside Foods are gambling with consumer health by using potentially cancerous immortalized cells in their lab-grown products.

As consumers become increasingly aware of the environmental and ethical concerns surrounding factory-farmed animal agriculture, the demand for sustainable, regeneratively farmed, and cruelty-free meat alternatives has skyrocketed. In response, some companies have turned to a controversial method for creating lab-grown meat: using immortalized cell lines. While this approach may seem like a groundbreaking solution as far as the synthetic production of a large quantity of cells goes, it raises serious questions about the long-term safety of consuming such products.

Immortalized cell lines, which are capable of continuously dividing and growing, bear a disturbing resemblance to cancer cells.1 The article "Lab-Grown Meat Firms Don't Know If Their Food Is Safe Long-Term: REPORT" highlights this concern, stating that "Lab-grown meat is often made using immortalized cell lines, which, unlike regular cells, are capable of continuously dividing and growing in a manner similar to cancer cells."1 Despite this alarming fact, many companies developing lab-grown meat have remained silent about the connection between their products and these potentially dangerous cells, possibly in an attempt to prevent consumers from becoming skittish about their offerings.1

One such company is Upside Foods. In November 2022, it became the first company in the world to receive the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)'s green light for cultivated meat. Upside Foods has attracted investments from several high-profile individuals and companies, including Bill Gates, Cargill, Tyson Foods, and Softbank Group.3 The involvement of these well-known investors has helped to raise the profile of Upside Foods and the cultivated meat industry more broadly. However, it also raises questions about the potential conflicts of interest and the influence these investors may have on the company's decision-making processes, particularly when it comes to prioritizing safety and transparency.

Figure Above: Brief overview of cultured meat production. The figure was constructed with illustrations taken from Servier Medical Art, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. Image Source.

One of the most concerning aspects of using immortalized cell lines in lab-grown meat production is the lack of long-term studies on the health effects of consuming these products. As noted in the article, "While there is no evidence to suggest that these cells -- which are either cultivated from cancer cells or created with genetic modification -- are dangerous for human consumption, there have also been no long-term studies on the health impact of these foods."1 This absence of crucial data leaves consumers in the dark about the potential risks they may face when consuming synthetic meat derived from immortalized cells.

The article also cites an October 2021 study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, in which MIT researchers emphasize the need for further investigation into the safety of consuming genetically engineered animal cells. The researchers state, "Confirming that future products made from immortalized animal cells expressing oncogenes, either through spontaneous immortalization or genetic engineering, would be safe represents a gap in knowledge in this field."1,2

Some companies, recognizing the potential backlash associated with using immortalized cell lines, have begun to explore alternative methods. Japan's IntegriCulture, for example, has shifted towards using cells taken directly from live animals in their production process, in an effort to distance themselves from the association with cancer.1 IntegriCulture CEO Yuki Hanyu acknowledges the potential controversy, stating, "There will be someone who will be poking at this issue. And it could basically flare up."1

As the demand for lab-grown meat continues to grow, it is crucial that comprehensive, long-term studies be conducted to assess the safety of consuming these products. MIT researcher Robert Weinberg, whose work demonstrated the genetic basis of cancer in the 1980s, suggests that the "best way" to permanently resolve the potential issue would be a 20 to 30-year-long study to determine if consumers of lab-grown meat were more likely to develop cancer than others.1 However, he acknowledges that such a study is not practical, and companies are more likely to focus on gaining regulatory approval to soothe public relations concerns and allow consumers to try their products.1

Until thorough, long-term research is available, consumers should be aware of the potential risks associated with synthetic meat derived from immortalized cells and make informed decisions about what they choose to consume. As the race to bring lab-grown meat to market continues, it is essential that companies like Upside Foods prioritize transparency and invest in research to ensure the safety of their products for human consumption, regardless of the potential influence from their high-profile investors.


References

1. DeMastri, John Hugh. "Lab-Grown Meat Firms Don't Know If Their Food Is Safe Long-Term: REPORT." The Daily Caller, February 7, 2023. https://dailycaller.com/2023/02/07/lab-grown-meat-safe-long-term-studies-report/.

2. Soice, Emily, and Jeremiah Johnston. "Immortalizing Cells for Human Consumption." International Journal of Molecular Sciences 22, no. 21 (October 28, 2021): 11660. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms222111660.

3. DiLallo, Matthew. "How to Invest in Upside Foods." The Motley Fool, December 5, 2023.

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