Will in vitro meat become cruelty free?

Today in London there was the first public tasting of in vitro meat (although it seems a bit
silly that the fate of such a potentially gamechanging technology would be influenced by the initial reaction of a couple of gourmands). The Guardian has dubbed Post’s in vitro patty as “the world’s first cruelty free hamburger” although Peter Singer, who actually wrote the piece knows enough to steer clear of this misnomer. This is a milestone for sure but how much difference will in vitro meat make to actual animal cruelty or the number of animals used for food? I previously explored how lab meat is created and whether in vitro meat would help animals in this podcast, including an interview with David Pearce where I asked (around minute 7), what market forces might move lab meat to involve the least amount of animal suffering.

In this blog, I first discuss the aspects of in vitro meat that are still potentially unethical. Then I talk a bit about how disgust, and the groups that are most disgust sensitive, may reduce the impact that in vitro meat will have on the reduction of animal suffering.

Substrate over Substance

All the media pieces I read and Maastrich University’s culturedbeef.net seem to ignore that it’s not just cells that matter but the substrate on which they’re grown.

Q: Does cultured beef still involve cruelty to animals?

A: We still need donor animals for the muscle cells, but the animals can provide the cells by harmless biopsy. One sample could create up to 20,000 tons of Cultured Beef. You can take a sample from an animal and the animal lives.

This completely ignores the fact that in vitro cells are grown on a substrate called “Fetal Bovine Serum” (FBS) (as detailed in this fact sheet from Maastricht University). Here is an excerpt from an article, “The use of fetal bovine serum: ethical or scientific problem?”. Keep in mind that the description here is derived from less than 4% of FBS harvesters that supplied technical information to the authors.

The bovine fetuses from which blood is drawn for (commercial) FBS production are obtained from pregnant cows which are sent to slaughter for reasons such as crippling lameness, or when slaughtering herds of extensively kept beef cattle…Fetuses should be at least 3 months old; otherwise the heart is too small for puncture…Bovine fetal blood is commonly harvested by cardiac puncture…At the time of slaughter, the cow is found to be pregnant during evisceration (removal of the internal organs in the thorax and abdomen during processing of the slaughtered cow). The reproductive tract is removed from the carcass…The calf is removed quickly from the uterus and the umbilical cord is tied off….A cardiac puncture is performed by inserting a needle between the ribs directly into the heart of the unanaesthesised fetus and blood is extracted under vacuum into a sterile blood collection bag via a tube. In the absence of a vacuum pump, fetal blood may be obtained by means of gravity or massage.

The article goes on to explore whether or not the fetus can feel pain but the calf’s mother who is eviscerated certainly can and thus it’s a huge stretch to say something that involves slaughter and evisceration is “cruelty free”. It’s unclear how many cows were involved in order to get enough FBS to produce the burger tasted today.


Bovine fetal serum collection diagram

taken from Jochems, C. E., Van Der Valk, J. B., Stafleu, F. R., & Baumans, V. (2002). The use of fetal bovine serum: ethical or scientific problem?. ATLA-NOTTINGHAM-, 30(2), 219-228.


Another issue is scaffolding, where it is also very likely that the “elastic collagen” used to structure the meat is animal derived. In terms of the biopsies and other possible animal cruelty involved I believe, like the writers of this response to a vegan critique of lab meat, that biopsies can be obtained with little to no suffering involved to animals and that given the obstacles to many people becoming vegetarian it’s much much better than slaughtering animals. As I said in the podcast, an in vitro meat that required no repeated biopsies and which required no animal derived scaffolding or substrate would be ethical enough for me to eat. Mark Post has estimated he can increase the number of burgers made from a cow from 100 to 100 million but it’s unclear whether this takes into account the animal derived substrate and scaffolding currently used. Certainly it would be wonderful if the number of animal deaths needed to make a burger rivaled those needed to produce vegetables but are market forces going to drive such a shift?

Disgust and In Vitro Meat

One of the main obstacles to uptake of in vitro meat is disgust. In order to drive demand for an in vitro meat whose production is as free of animal derived products as possible vegetarians should at least be willing to try it. But, in a survey I did for The Vegan Option it seems that the majority of vegans were unwilling to eat in vitro meat even if it caused no more animal death than vegetables (see also this survey with more humorous multiple choice). Similar results have been obtained for vegetarians in larger surveys (also see). Whether you think that moral vegetarians are more disgust sensitive or that ethical vegetarians become disgusted by meat as a function of their attitudes it seems that this isn’t a group that is going to be leading the way to “invitrotarianism”. Most problematic is that those who are growing in vitro meat aren’t going to go that extra mile to take animal products out of production if they don’t think that ethical vegetarians will ever be part of the market for their product.
Unfortunately, it also seems that those who eat the MOST MEAT are also the most disgust sensitive. So, potentially those who could make the most impact by switching from meat on the hoof to in vitro meat may also be squeamish about trying the new product in the absence of major incentives. Hopefully up and coming organizations like New Harvest can find ways to improve uptake and reduce the cruelty still involved in in vitro meat.

7 thoughts on “Will in vitro meat become cruelty free?

  1. Interesting post! I’ve been reading about this technology for years, and while as a vegan I have mixed feelings about it, it is worth experimenting with further. I hope they can finally make it truely cruelty free.

  2. These are good points. But there’s really no way that in vitro meat will succeed as a product until FBS is not required. Likewise collagen derived from animals. So the technology is not ready for mass production. To get it ready for mass production we’ll have to remove any significant dependence on living animals amongst other things. Hence I’m confident that the economics and ethics are happily aligned for in vitro meat.

    Finally the point about the disgust factor. In vitro meat is likely to be cheaper (eventually) than slaughterhouse meat. I hope that people will learn not to react against a product through habituation and choose it because of its price. This has happened for other foodstuffs before. Also when organ transplants first occurred they were thought of with disgust but that’s largely changed now.

  3. Really good article. I think IV meat could be really promising, and I welcome anything that reduces the amount of animal suffering and environmental damage, and provides a potential part-solution to the food crisis. BUT, my concern is that developing IV meat rather than promoting veganism is using a band aid to cover an axe wound. A society that would rather cause unbelievable suffering, destroy the environment, and generally prioritise gluttony over ethics, has something seriously wrong with it, and pumping precious research resources, that could be used for far greater purposes, into developing a substitute for meat, is not going to help shift social attitudes towards ethical issues. Vegetarianism is becoming more and more popular, and we’re finally starting to get somewhere through education and appealing to the societies moral compass, such as it is. It’s good to make it easier for people to live a more ethical lifestyle; indeed, how many of us would be vegan if it wasn’t for the ‘free-from’ section in supermarkets and health food shops; but I think people should be encouraged to stop eating meat anyway.

    • I strongly disagree with this opinion. I can’t think of any instance where such large economic incentives and vested interests mediated against a change in a civilisation’s ethics. For meat eating a lot of people consider it a luxury and that opinion seems unlikely to change without much better meat alternatives.

      Consider the following instances: Slavery, Universal male suffrage, Female suffrage. In each case economic changes occurred before the ethical advance was achieved.

      It’s also why we’re having such a hard time getting countries to do something about climate change. There the economics is on our side. It’s just the short term economics that’s against us.

      In my view if we can make in vitro meat its the most likely path leading towards closing down the slaughterhouses.

  4. It is worth mentioning that during the live event, one of the reporters asked if the process used to produce the cultured meat was still using the fetal bovine serum substrate. Mark Post readily admitted that they were, but had test multiple alternatives to the FBS. It was definitely a concern of his and he seemed confident that the use of FBS could eventually be overcome.

    It seemed clear to me that animal welfare was one of the important reasons Mark Post had for starting this project, so I believe he will continue to dedicate effort to making the production process animal cruelty free in the future.

  5. Pingback: Cultured Meat | Skeptical Vegan

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