Skip to Content

How Do You Know Your Lab-Grown Burger Is Safe To Eat?

Startups are making realistic lab-grown foods, but government food regulators aren’t sure how to police them.
August 25, 2016

In a few years’ time, it should be possible to find a juicy hamburger and creamy shake made from lab-grown beef and milk. But before we can consume them, someone’s going to have to tell us they’re okay to put into our mouths.

Startups and university researchers are swiftly rattling toward the realization of lab-made food, growing meat and dairy products without a single animal in sight. A team from Maastricht University already showed off a burger cultured from a cow’s muscle cells in 2013. (In tests, it was claimed to be almost like the real thing, if “surprisingly crunchy.”)

Now, startups like Memphis Meats, SuperMeat, and Mosa Meat are racing to create fake flesh grown from cells by as soon as 2021. Some companies, such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, are using soy protein and other vegetable substitutes to similar ends. And Perfect Day hopes to have cow-free milk, brewed using yeast, on the breakfast table by the end of next year.

But, as Science points out, the techniques used to create these products may fall between regulatory cracks. The U.S. Department of Agriculture looks after the real meat, dairy, and eggs we currently consume. The Food and Drug Administration, meanwhile, monitors food additives and products made from human cells. But currently there’s no oversight for vetting the technology used to create most lab-grown food—though the White House and National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are now working on it.

It will prove easier for some foods than others. Synthetic milk, for instance, could be made from proteins that are already considered to be safe by the FDA. Given many enzymes and proteins are already cleared for use as food additives without any special product approval required, companies may be able to carefully design produce so as to avoid regulatory issues.

Meat cultured from cells may be more of a problem, mainly because it’s hard to classify. It may end up being viewed as anything from a food to a tissue-based product that has to be regulated as a drug. The latter would clearly make taking many new products to market far more difficult than startups would hope.

The regulatory frameworks that govern lab-grown food will clearly have to change over time. With the FDA, USDA, and White House all mulling it, the process could take some time. Let’s hope it’s not a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth.

(Read more: Science, “The Problem with Fake Meat,” “If the World Gives Up Meat, We Can Still Have Burgers”)

Keep Reading

Most Popular

open sourcing language models concept
open sourcing language models concept

Meta has built a massive new language AI—and it’s giving it away for free

Facebook’s parent company is inviting researchers to pore over and pick apart the flaws in its version of GPT-3

transplant surgery
transplant surgery

The gene-edited pig heart given to a dying patient was infected with a pig virus

The first transplant of a genetically-modified pig heart into a human may have ended prematurely because of a well-known—and avoidable—risk.

Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research
Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research

Saudi Arabia plans to spend $1 billion a year discovering treatments to slow aging

The oil kingdom fears that its population is aging at an accelerated rate and hopes to test drugs to reverse the problem. First up might be the diabetes drug metformin.

Yann LeCun
Yann LeCun

Yann LeCun has a bold new vision for the future of AI

One of the godfathers of deep learning pulls together old ideas to sketch out a fresh path for AI, but raises as many questions as he answers.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.