Is Lab-Grown Meat the Safer Option?

May 27, 2022
We talked with Icicle Technologies’ Steven Burton, who walks us through the pros and cons of lab-grown meat and why he’s trying to help processors produce safer food.

With us on the podcast today is Steven Burton, Founder and CEO of Icicle Technologies. Originally launched to help solve the problem of foodborne illness, Icicle now helps food companies execute their food safety plans. In this episode, we get to the meat of the matter of lab-grown meat. We kick things off talking about why the notion of lab-grown meat and alternative proteins are growing in popularity as well as their impact on the meat industry.

We talk a bit about consumers’ perspectives of meat alternatives and the GMO-ification of it all before digging in to a discussion about both the advantages and drawbacks of lab-grown meat. We of course also talk about how safe lab-grown meat really is. We wrap things up talking about how Icicle Technologies is helping companies – including those in the lab-grown meat space – bring safer products to market.


Erin: Steven, welcome to the "Food For Thought" podcast. I'm so excited to have you on. And I would love it if you could introduce yourself to our listeners, and let us know your background and what it is you do.

Steven: Sure. Happy to do that. And thanks for having me. I'm essentially a technologist with a background in manufacturing and software development. And over the last decade, I've been the CEO of Icicle Technologies. And we've been developing an automation system called Icicle for food manufacturers. In that role, I always try to stay on top of food technology trends. And also because we have quite a broad market in terms of industry verticals, I have a bit of an advantage because I can see into different types of companies, including alternative protein products.

Erin: Can you talk to me a bit more about what Icicle does, specifically for food processors?

Steven: Sure. Maybe just a bit of background would be sort of helpful on that. First of all, I, myself, got seriously ill with food poisoning on several different occasions, and I also have two immunocompromised children. Originally, when I started Icicle, I did it with the intention of solving the problem with foodborne illness, because I assumed that there needed to be some sort of technological solution for it. Because like 1 in 10 people get foodborne illness contracted diseases each year. There had to be a better way.

Originally, we started out as a pure food safety application. And our mission was to help companies identify and control the biological, chemical, physical hazards that they might encounter when producing food products. And specifically in terms of defining food safety plans, executing those plans, monitoring the activities related to those plans to make sure that the food products are safe. And then, if things do go off the rails, to provide tools to be able to sort of manage emergencies when they arise.

We launched the application. And then, afterwards, it was so well accepted that people started asking us for more. We started out with food safety and people wanted to know about quality control and traceability. That sort of led into warehouse management. And we're at the point today where we have a complete system that's paperless and really allows food processors to manage all aspects of their business.

Erin: Let's dig in a bit on alternative proteins and lab-grown meat. From where you're studying, what's the consumer appeal to lab-grown meat?

Steven: I think there's really a very big difference between alternative proteins and lab-grown meat. So, essentially, alternative proteins are usually plant-based meat substitutes. And we have a number of our clients produce those products and very interesting ones like Big Mountain Foods and Tomorrow Foods. But lab-grown meat actually is really meat. So this isn't like a protein alternative, this is actually meat tissue itself. And the difference really is that it's grown in a bioreactor instead of in a cow, or a pig, or sheep, right?

And in terms of lab-grown meat, I think the consumer appeal is twofold. many people are concerned about the morality of killing animals. They’re worried about how the animals feel, the pain they suffer when they're slaughtered. And so, to kind of relieve the suffering of the animals, people feel that it may be more ethical to consume products that are grown in the lab as opposed to having to have animals raised and slaughtered to provide those food products.

But it's a little bit kind of hard for us as humans because we have millions of years of evolution that have kind of conspired to cause us to crave this kind of umami flavor that we get from meat, especially when it's char broiled on the barbecue. So most people sort of set aside that moral concern when dinnertime arrives, and partake in meat products. Although, of course, not everybody. But in the broader sense of universal morality, I'm not really sure that killing plants is really that much better as a absolute morality, but because we're animals, we feel that that's the case.

And then the second reason is around the environmental impact of the meat industry as a whole. Growing animals takes an enormous amount of space. It's quite inefficient in terms of calories that are produced per pound of product compared to plant products. And oftentimes, the animals are raised on land that could be repurposed to grow plants for food, and with a much higher yield in terms of calories per acre.

When you're raising animals, there's a lot of effluent that's produced by the animal that washes off the pasture lands and creates a biohazard that's really a pretty high-order problem for, especially if the animals are raised in proximity to farming operations where they're growing plants. And we've seen many cases of recalls that are caused by adjacent animal husbandry to plant agriculture.

Erin: I want to piggyback off of what you were talking about with the appeal to lab-grown meat. Why do you think that lab-grown meat has picked up in popularity so much in recent years?

Steven: Actually, I think, so far, the popularity is pretty much limited to attracting investors into the lab-grown meat market, because it's not available at the moment at all. So there's a couple places in the world where they're doing a little bit of test marketing, you know, most notably in Singapore and Israel. And there's quite a few companies coming out with major initiatives, very well-funded by investors, like Good Meat and Impossible Foods out of the U.S., and Mosa Meats in Europe. Future Meat is a very interesting company out of Israel that's got a really interesting technology.

But I think all of these are just now starting to ramp up. And it's going to take some time before we have the opportunity to put lab-grown meat on our tables. We have seen though, in terms of the popularity, uptake for the alternative meat plant-based products. And people really like them because they have the notion, you know, again, that there's no animal cruelty involved with producing these alternatives, and that perhaps they're healthier as well.

I think that the plant-based proteins have a perception in the consumer market in general that it's a healthier product, but I'm not sure that that's entirely true, because there's other additives that have to be added that make up for the flavor that the plant-based products might not necessarily come out of the box with. But I do think that when the lab-grown meat becomes more readily available, the same sort of things that attract people towards the plant-based meat substitutes are also going to be carried over to the lab-grown meat as well.

Erin: What are some of the drawbacks of lab-grown meat?

Steven: Well, the biggest one so far is really cost. This is the main hurdle, I think, that they have to overcome, all these companies that are developing these meat products. When the first burger, for example, was produced back in 2013, it was about $300,000 per burger in terms of the cost of growing that meat. So, obviously very, very far from something that a consumer can afford. But by this year, it dropped to 40 bucks per kilogram. And I think we're going to see something or at least the press that we're reading from the CEOs of these companies are suggesting that something in the $20 per kilogram range could be occurring over the next year to two years. And I think, at that point, it's going to become competitive with naturally-grown meat, and it's gonna be able to compete, I think, quite effectively, particularly against specialty meat products like organic, grass-fed, free range, you know, that are typically commanding a premium at the grocery store.

We're also seeing quite a dramatic increase right now in terms of inflation in food products in general. And that is quite a few advantages from lab-grown meat. Personally, I've moved really out of the skeptics camp in terms of whether or not the technology will ever become viable, because at the beginning, when you think about building an enormous bioreactor to produce meat at an industrial scale, I mean, the capital cost of doing that, and the technological uncertainties are definitely very significant. But now there's enough evidence, I think, out on the table, you know, the test products, the variety of companies that are involved, that we can really clearly see that in the near future is going to be viable. And at this point, it's just a matter of time before it attains some sort of mass market adoption.

The other main problem with the experience is that there's legacy expectations. And when we think of meat in general, you think of kind of like steaks broiling on the grill. And we're very used to consuming our meat in a particular way. And we're sensitive to the texture of the meat. And reproducing those textures in a lab is really, really hard. Every company is working on that. And many are doing so with considerable success right now.

But I think it would behoove us as consumers really to sort of change our expectations and sort of forget the notion of the original types of meats that we're used to eating and sort of enjoy and explore the alternative forms that the lab-grown meat can take. And I think that embracing the direction that that technology is leading us is going to end up in a much better place than if we expend all our efforts just trying to reproduce the natural work of, you know, the Almighty Himself.

Erin: Food safety, especially with meat products, is a huge issue, not only for consumers, but processors alike. How does lab-grown meat play into that? And how does what you're doing at Icicle play into that as well?

Steven: This is an interesting question for me, it plays very closely to my heart. That was what I founded Icicle in the first place. The whole idea was to reduce the incidence of foodborne illness.

When animals or birds are slaughtered, their digestive tract is essentially a big bag of bacteria that contaminates, really, everything that it touches. Animals contract disease, and their blood contain the pathogens like viruses. And the central nervous tissue of the animals, especially cows, can contain even worse things like prions, which aren't even living organisms, they're just misfolded proteins that can cause mad cow disease in animals, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans, which is a degenerative neuro disease.

And lab-grown meat has several advantages, really, in this regard. First of all, there's no blood, there's no guts, there's no excessive water all over the show like you'd find in a typical slaughterhouse. There's no bacteria-laden digestive juices that are sloshing all over all the workers and other product that's being processed. Pathogenic bacteria like Salmonella and E. Coli don't catch a ride in on the animals and the birds the way that they do with the naturally-grown animal meats that eventually find their way into kitchens.

In fact, with chicken, Salmonella is actually one of the harmful pathogenic bacteria that isn't even mandated to be controlled at the facility level. We're required to cook it, cook the chicken to temperature in our own kitchens that kills the pathogens, because there's really no way to control the pathogens in a food processing environment. So having a lab-grown meat has the advantage of being raised in a clean, you know, controlled laboratory environment that's essentially sterile and much more suitable, really, for the production of safe food than natural products are.

And there's no slaughterhouse on the planet, even with the best standard operating procedures and monitoring systems in place, that could ever compete with a lab in terms of food safety. But that doesn't mean we don't need to be careful, because bacteria and viruses tend to find their way into all sorts of different places.

And many of these will also find their way into labs if the labs aren't vigilant. Listeria is like one of the main concerns I would have, because it has an insidious way of working its way into kind of dark, cold places inside pieces of equipment that can spring forth from to cause problems. So, it's not sort of a free ride for these lab-grown beef people, or lab-grown meat in general. But I think it's much, much better than having a slaughterhouse-type environment in terms of the food safety, for sure.

In terms of how Icicle can help with that. Icicle is an extremely flexible kind of system. So, it can be configured for any different type of food production environment, including lab-grown meat. So, specific for lab-grown meat, we can absolutely help the people developing these lab-grown meats identify the biological, chemical, physical hazards, there's even requirements for bioterrorism and food fraud, which I think would be less of a risk there, but still non-zero in terms of the overall risk level. So, we can help identify and put in controls to deal with those hazards. Identify them and document procedures and plans to enable them to be controlled.

And then to also monitor those activities in terms of assigning tasks, making sure the work is actually getting done, and even collecting telemetry automatically from sensors. That can be incorporated into the system and, you know, flag situations that are kind of going off the rails before they become emergencies.

Finally, if something does go wrong when you're producing products, you have to have the ability to recall it. So we manage all the aspects around recall so that consumers that have received the product can be quickly and precisely identified and notified that there's problems if, God forbid, something actually does happen. Essentially, it's just all around giving these establishments the tools that they need to effectively manage their food safety programs.

Erin: I can't help but when hearing lab-grown of alluding to or kind of reminding us of genetically modified. And I know when the GMO debate was really taking hold of consumers, we heard a lot of consumer statements about why genetically, or about genetically modified products being labeled as not safe. So I'm curious, in your opinion, why do you think lab-grown meat is different? And will most likely, when it comes to consumers, be subject to less scrutiny and public outcry?

Steven: Well, firstly, I know that there's a sort of conception in most segments of the consumer market that GMO is not safe, but I think that this is actually a misconception. In many cases, GMO products are not only safe, but they may be safer because they can be, first of all, engineered to remove certain harmful compounds that could otherwise naturally occur. They're much more efficient in terms of yield, so you have less environmental impact because you get higher yields per acre. Because you can genetically engineer them to be resistant to pesticides, you have to use fewer pesticides, which results in fewer pesticide residues ending up on your dinner plate. And you need less fertilizer, which is harmful, environmentally.

The anti-GMO movement is essentially a fear-based movement. So, one can't actually apply kind of rational thought directly to it because it comes from, you know, this emotional response, which comes from really two sources. First of all, there's this notion that natural is good. And in many cases, that's true, natural is good, but in other cases, you know, there's situations like cyanide, and arsenic, and cancer, all natural products, yet, you know, I wouldn't think anybody would consider those to be necessarily good, particularly in our food supply.

So the world, you know, is obviously dangerous, and nature isn't necessarily safe or kind. And I think Hollywood has really capitalized on this, which is one of the reasons why the GMO movement has really taken off, or anti-GMO movement, in that, they've created this kind of notion that there's mad scientists who sort of irresponsibly experiment with different organisms and monsters, as a result, that spring forth and potentially harm our loved ones. So, we're afraid of that, and so we push back on that.

But the reality, in fact, is that GMO is extremely tightly regulated, and any advances in GMO is intensely scrutinized before they're ever approved for release. And we've also been eating GMO food already for decades. Because, you know, almost all the corn starch, canola oil, granulated sugar, that you find in the supermarket today are all GMO-based products.

And then there's another aspect as well, which is a bit of sort of a Western privilege that we're imposing on other parts of the world, like in India, for example, they have a major problem with about 30% of their eggplant crop lost each year due to this caterpillar infestation. And there was a GMO variety that was developed that's resistant. And the purpose of developing it was to really stabilize the food prices for millions of people that were suffering from food insecurity, and they just need this crop, it's one of their basic food sources. But India has banned this variety because of pressure, specifically from anti-GMO groups, which, unfortunately, you know, results in people starving.

Could this sort of consumer wave rise and attack lab-grown meat as well? Yes, absolutely. And I think it will, for sure, pretty much. But I think what's gonna happen is, if the cost can be brought down to the levels that the producers of lab-grown meat are suggesting, then there's gonna be a dramatic advantage, because it takes like 18 months to raise a head of cattle, for example, and it only takes two weeks to grow a vat of lab-grown meat. So, if the capital cost can really come down, it should be cheaper, which is going to be obviously a big consumer advantage.

But there's always gonna be a niche, I think, for animal-grown meat. And I think it's gonna be rebranded, I suspect, as natural meat. But it's gonna be a bit of a sticky problem if you decide to sort of take it on and say you're anti-lab-grown meat. Because, first of all, you're gonna be going against the animal welfare, and also anti-climate change people, which are generally the same people that are anti-GMO. So there's gonna be a conflict, I think, between anti-lab-grown meat and those other two factors.

Arguing, essentially, that animal-grown meat is better for animals or for the environment is gonna be very, very difficult for them. And there's also the ancillary issue that, in fact, there's gonna be millions of animals that are never gonna be born if the world switches to animal products, or to lab-grown animal products.

Erin: I'm going to ask for you to reach for your forecasting crystal ball and tell our audience, what's your prediction for lab-grown meat in the next year? And then maybe in the next few years?

Steven: Well, first of all, in the next year, I don't really see anything happening but for a continuation of sort of the steady stream of media headlines regarding lab-grown meat, because it's not ready for wide production yet. The costs are still too high, the technology is not yet fully mature. They're making significant inroads, and I think that that will continue. And I do expect to see some sort of mass market introduction of lab-grown meats by probably some time maybe late 2023, 2024, 2025, that's probably gonna be more of the sweet spot in terms of delivering, you know, substantial quantities of product to the consumer market. Could take a bit longer if problems arise, or if there's regulatory hurdles that need to be overcome.

But I think we're probably, you know, still three to five years out. Although, in the end, you know, there's the potential that it could even supplant animal-grown meat in the relatively near future, within, say, a decade or so. And it might even be an imperative to do it because our current processes for creating animal protein is definitely too inefficient and too environmentally harmful.

Erin: Well, with that, Steve, I wanna thank you for being on today's episode of the Food For Thought podcast.

Steven: Thank you very much for having me. It's really been a pleasure.

About the Author

Erin A. Hallstrom

Erin Hallstrom oversaw our digital content strategy for the Food Processing brand from 2008-2023. She is now the Associate Director of SEO Strategy for Endeavor Business Media, where she holds technical certifications in both website analytics and search engine optimization. Most recently, she was named the 2022 Marianne Dekker Mattera Award Winner

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