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Lab-meat, from petri-dish to the supermarket

March 2018

Vegetarian meat is gaining a place in the diet of more Europeans. However, an even better alternative to the real thing is on its way.

The Vegetarian Butcher is a success in the Netherlands as well as in an increasing number of other European countries. The company sells all kinds of meat substitutes: from vegetarian drumsticks and sausages to fish-free tuna and prawns. In 2010 the first store was opened in The Hague. Nowadays, the products of the Vegetarian Butcher are sold in hundreds of Dutch supermarkets and there are outlets in Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Germany and even South Korea. The success of the formula underlines that many people prefer the taste of meat, but are more than happy to settle for a substitute. In particular when that substitute avoids animal suffering and has less impact on the environment.

A new substitute for vegetarian meat

Vegetarians have several reasons for excluding meat from their diet. It is often the animal suffering that is inextricably linked to meat production. In addition, the meat industry puts enormous pressure on the environment. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) agriculture is responsible for 18% of the total release of greenhouse gases around the world1. That is more than the whole of the transportation sector. However, there is a chance that certain customers of the Vegetarian Butcher could be eating real meat in a few years’ time. The difference being that the meat would not be coming from large farms, but would be grown in laboratories.
Healthy nutrition is booming. We are paying far more attention to what is on our plates.

A burger for € 300.000

Five years ago, Professor Mark Post of the University of Maastricht presented the first hamburger made from meat grown in a laboratory2. Although the specialists liked the taste of the burger, the focus was on the price tag of over € 300.000. While the technology for this process is advancing rapidly, it may take quite some time before you can order a McLab at a nearby fast-food restaurant. ‘To grow meat with the right taste in a laboratory is but one thing’, explains Marie-Laure Schaufelberger, product specialist for the Pictet Nutrition strategy: ‘The big challenge is to replicate the structure. People should not expect having a vegetarian chicken or rib-eye any time soon.’

Coming to a supermarket near you

Professor Post’s first lab-grown burger was built out of 20.000 minuscule pieces of meat just 2 millimeters long. They were grown in small petri-dishes from stem cells that had been taken (painlessly) from two cows. The creation of the burger took three months. ‘Other types of meat can be put together in a less laborious way’, says Schaufelberger: ‘Several companies aim to have lab-grown meat in the supermarket shelves by the end of this year or in 2019.’

Nutrition claims a place in the spotlights

Whether the introduction of lab-grown meat will convince people who are vegetarians for moral reasons to switch back to eating meat, remains to be seen. The question to what extent especially red meat can be part of a healthy diet, draws significantly more attention. ‘These discussions indicate that we are paying more attention to what is on our plates’, tells Schaufelberger. ‘Nowadays, it is quite normal to take a critical look at the food labels to identify the additives. Nutrition will remain an important theme for the foreseeable future; in the scientific as well as in the financial world.’