The reviews are in, lab-grown meat is … good? This week, Oscar Boyd gives us a review of his cultured chicken meal and runs down the environmental implications of such an endeavor, while Tomoko Otake gets us caught up on where Japan stands in the great race to replicate beef.

Hosted by Shaun McKenna and produced by Dave Cortez.

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Tomoko Otake: Articles | Twitter

Oscar Boyd: Articles | Twitter

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Note: Deep Dive is made to be listened to, and we recommend this transcript be used as an accompaniment to the episode. This transcript has been generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcription, and may contain errors. Please check its accuracy against the episode.

Shaun McKenna  00:08  

Hey there Oscar Boyd, long time no talk.

Oscar Boyd  00:10  

Hey, Shaun McKenna. How's it going?

Shaun McKenna  00:12  

It's going well, thanks. But, I've hit a snag with the podcast and I'm wondering if you can help me out. This week we're talking to Japan Times reporter Tomoko Otake for an episode on cultured meat… or cultivated meat… or lab-grown meat — whatever we're calling it. The thing is, I can't find anyone here who's actually tried it. However, I remember hearing on your Zero podcast that you had eaten some when you were at COP27 last year.

Oscar Boyd  00:36  

Yeah, so, back in November, we went to COP27, which was in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, and we received this invite to try cultivated meat for the first time, well, for the first time for me, and it was by this company called Eat Just and they have a brand of cultivated meat, they call it Good Meat. And they, in Singapore, are in a bioreactor in a lab somewhere, creating lab-grown meat.

Shaun McKenna  01:02  

OK, can you tell our Deep Dive listeners a little bit more about that? Maybe we can set the mood with some background music.

Oscar Boyd  01:12  

So we received this invite, and they invited us down to this beachside villa, where there was a man playing the steel pans and some clarinet music and there was a kind of whale sound going on in the background. It was all very luxe and chichi feeling. And they sat us down at these tables, and they served us lab-grown chicken in three different ways. 

Shaun McKenna  01:33  

How did they serve it?

Oscar Boyd  01:34  

So the first way they served it was a fried chicken skewer, and every time I say chicken, I'm going to say it's in quote marks because it is lab-grown chicken, and that was with red peppers, red onions and served on a lentil soup. The second course we had was deep fried chicken skin, which was just cooked in oil and heavily salted, so it was absolutely delicious. And the third way they had it was the one that resembled a piece of chicken the most, it was the largest bit of individual chicken we were served and it was meant to be grilled chicken thigh meat, and that was served on a bed of mushrooms and rice.

Shaun McKenna  02:09  

How did it compare to actual chicken? 

Oscar Boyd  02:12  

Well, so I mean, that's the big question. Right? I would say it's chicken-esque. It was good. It was edible. It was tasty. And you know, bear in mind, we were being served it, you know, probably the most fancy way, there was a dedicated chef cooking it over this lovely charcoal fire in this beautiful setting. And they'd served us plenty of alcohol to help wash it down as well. But yeah, I mean, it was pretty good. Is it chicken? No. But then at the same time, it's all come from a bioreactor somewhere in a lab. So actually, what it is, is very, very impressive. It's not a chicken off a bird. It's chicken that is human-produced, human-made, human-grown in a lab.

Shaun McKenna  02:49  

Could you see yourself kind of switching from meat to this?

Oscar Boyd  02:54  

Well, so far, I haven't grown feathers or produced wings or anything like that. So from the kind of freaky sci-fi nature, yeah, I think it's totally fine to eat it. The big challenge with it at the moment is that it's vastly expensive to produce. So I tried to inquire and get the price off the people who were producing the meal, but they wouldn't actually tell us how much it would cost. And I think that's the biggest factor right now, that also, you know, as part of it being very expensive. They're only producing it in very small quantities. So it's just not available to replace meat at the moment. That being said, in their projections, the company Eat Just they were saying that by 2028, they hope to have it on the same price and be able to scale it up to actually start replacing chicken properly. Then, the other big challenge is it's not been approved in many countries so far. So their particular formulation has been approved to eat and for sale in Singapore. But it was their first time ever serving it outside of Singapore. So they had to do actually a special deal with the Egyptian Government to be able to bring it in and serve it at this COP conference. So yeah, so there's a lot of challenges in place still, before it can go commercially. That being said, especially that last meal where it was the chicken breast, or chicken thigh, mixed in with rice and mushrooms, it was very hard to tell the difference.

Shaun McKenna  04:15  

Right? Do you think that cultured meat is something that’s likely to win over vegetarians?

Oscar Boyd  04:20  

So people are vegetarian for different reasons. You know, some people don't like the cruelty that comes with animal production. Some people do it for environmental reasons. And then some people just don't want to eat animals at all. And that last category might have the biggest problem with it because it is still using, at its base, cells that are extracted from animals. That being said, I don't think that's really the important question. It's not designed to win over vegetarians. What it's designed to do is win over meat eaters, because vegetarians are already eating vegetarian diets, which are relatively environmentally friendly most of the time, and what this company and other companies in the space who are also producing cultivated meat to try to do is to produce alternatives to people who really want to eat meat. And you know, lots of people like eating meat. And that's a, that's an OK thing to do. But it has an enormous environmental footprint. So those are the people that need to be won over. And that will be the real test of whether this can be adopted and eaten at scale.

Shaun McKenna  05:18  

Yeah, that was my question for you, in particular, is cultured meat better for the environment?

Oscar Boyd  05:24  

It's not been done at a large enough scale at the moment to truly know. What we do know about the meat industry, and in particular beef is that it takes up a huge amount of land. And that's land for grazing, that's land to grow crops that are fed directly to cows. And when we're talking about land, all of that land is land that could otherwise be used for rainforests, which are, you know, giant carbon sinks, but also fantastic for biodiversity as well. And so that, I think, is the greatest potential benefit of if you can get something that is grown in these tiny bioreactors off the ground, it will just massively reduce our kind of land footprint that we use to sustain our very meat-heavy food system at the moment.

Shaun McKenna  06:09  

Doesn't it take a lot of resources to produce this lab-grown meat, though? 

Oscar Boyd  06:13  

Well, yeah, it does. It takes a lot of electricity primarily to power these bioreactors and make sure that you can actually divide the cells to produce meat from them, and that is an issue. So I think, you know, if you're really thinking about doing this in an environmentally friendly way, or in a low-carbon way, then the electricity for that needs to be coming from renewable sources or fossil-free sources, like wind, like solar, and that will be an important part of making this as environmentally friendly as possible. I think though, you know, we've been talking about this particular meat I ate, which was cultivated chicken, the greatest potential does seem to be for cultivated beef, again, coming back to that point of land use. So even if you were to power the bioreactors to grow beef, using the most carbon-intensive fossil fuels, according to a Dutch study who've looked into this, it would still be better using those fossil fuels, then farming beef in a usual way.

Shaun McKenna  07:10  

All right. Well, thanks very much for coming back to Deep Dive and telling us about your experience, Oscar. Next time you're in Tokyo, I guess, the animal cells are on me.

Oscar Boyd  07:17  

Well, thanks very much.

Shaun McKenna  07:19  

Thanks again to Oscar Boyd, original Deep Dive host, for coming back to the show. You can check out his new podcast, Zero, on your favorite podcasting platform. I recommend checking out one particular episode titled “How to Quit Your Job for the Climate,” which is all about people who've made the decision to leave their jobs for a new career in the climate space. We'll be back after a quick break.

Tomoko Otake writes about health and science for The Japan Times, and her latest piece is on how cultured meat is being received in Japan. Tomoko, welcome to Deep Dive.

Tomoko Otake  08:01  

Thanks for having me.

Shaun McKenna  08:02  

First of all, meat grown in a lab is being called cultured meat, it's been called cultivated meat, what is it called in Japan?

Tomoko Otake  08:11  

It's called baiyō-niku. And baiyō actually means “cultivation” or “culture,” and niku means “meat.”

Shaun McKenna  08:18  

Gotcha. OK, so for your piece, you visited the labs at the University of Tokyo, but you didn't get the chance to sample any baiyō-niku. Is that right?

Tomoko Otake  08:28  

That's correct. I asked, but I wasn't allowed to taste it.

Shaun McKenna  08:31  

Why is that? 

Tomoko Otake  08:32  

Well, it's because it's not legal here yet. There's no regulatory framework for baiyō-niku yet.

Shaun McKenna  08:39  

You did speak to Shoji Takeuchi, though and he has tried it. Who is Takeuchi? And more importantly, how did he say it tasted?

Tomoko Otake  08:48  

He's a scientist and he specializes in tissue engineering. He tried some lab-grown beef in March last year at a tasting event on campus, but he had to get permission from the university's ethics review board to prove that it was safe and made entirely from edible materials. He said that it didn't quite taste like beef, although we had umami and it was chewy.

Shaun McKenna  09:12  

How did Takeuchi get into the field of cultured meat?

Tomoko Otake  09:17  

Well, his field of research is bio-hybrid robotics, which combines robotics and bio-engineering. For example, when you cut your finger, your skin gets damaged, but it has the ability to naturally heal itself after a while, right? So last year, Takeuchi created a robotic finger that is covered with living skin tissue, which is soft and can heal itself. That's an example of a bio-hybrid robot that he has created. So he thought about how he can find applications for his technology, and that's how he came up with this idea of creating meat from real cells of cattle. So he saw the work of Dutch pharmacologist Mark Post, who presented a lab ground beef burger in 2013, which cost $325,000. 

Shaun McKenna  10:10  

Wow, now that's a real Whopper. 

Tomoko Otake  10:12  

That's right. With his interest in re-constructing muscle tissue, Takeuchi brought Mark Post to Japan the following year to give a lecture. 

Mark Post  10:21  

Well, I think most people just don't realize that the current meat production is at its maximum, and it's not going to supply sufficient meat for the growing demand in the coming 40 years. So we need to come up with an alternative. There's no question. And this can be an ethical and environmentally friendly way to produce meat.

Shaun McKenna  10:42  

So Mark post created kind of like a patty that was more like ground beef. Is that what Takeuchi is interested in creating?

Tomoko Otake  10:50  

No, he's more interested in creating a beef steak. 

Shaun McKenna  10:55  

Oh, like an actual piece of steak. 

Tomoko Otake  10:57 

That's right. Beef steak needs to be thick, meaning that he needs to stack many layers of gel sheet containing muscle fiber, just like real meat. 

Shaun McKenna  11:09  

Gel sheets, OK. 

Tomoko Otake  11:11 

So he received a piece of real beef from a meat factory in Tokyo, cut it into small pieces and put those pieces through filters. He extracts what are called myoblasts, which can grow into muscle cells. Then he soaks them in a culture medium, the cells grow and multiply in a petri dish in about a week. His hope is to create a 100-gram beef steak by 2025.

Shaun McKenna  11:36  

By 2025, does that mean we could be eating lab-grown dinners in a couple of years?

Tomoko Otake  11:41  

No, no, we're still at the beginning stages. Yeah, the government still has to regulate the industry. Remember how I wasn't allowed to try the meat when I visited Tokyo University?

Shaun McKenna  11:54  

Right? So no lab-grown dinners anytime soon.

Tomoko Otake  11:57  

That's right. But I spoke to Moeha Ido, an official at the agriculture ministry, and she told me that cultured meat is a new type of food that has yet to be consumed. So the ministry is considering what kind of safety assurances would be necessary.

Shaun McKenna  12:13  

Hmm, I smell a lot of panels for “discussing this issue further” in the future.

Tomoko Otake  12:18  

Yeah, but the agriculture ministry published a draft vision on the promotion of food tech in December. And based on the results, they're going to put together a public-private consortium of government agencies, researchers and food producers and they're gonna meet in late February to adopt a draft vision.

Shaun McKenna  12:39  

Who are the firms that are working on this in Japan? You mentioned Nissin Foods in your piece.

Tomoko Otake  12:45  

That's right, Nissin is famous as a maker of instant noodles. Have you heard of cup noodles? Yeah, so they are the maker of cup noodles, they approached Takeuchi and offered to jointly develop cultured meat in 2017. And Nissin’s researchers are working in Takeuchi’s lab now.

Shaun McKenna  13:06  

So in the meantime, I guess Professor Takeuchi and Nissin will continue working on that steak.

Tomoko Otake  13:12  

That's right. And who knows what things he might learn about muscle tissue cultivation in the process. It may end up tasting better than what we are having now.

Shaun McKenna  13:23  

And with less harm done to animals, it seems. Are you interested in trying lab-grown meat yourself?

Tomoko Otake  13:29  

I would definitely try it out, out of journalistic curiosity. But a lot depends on how it looks and how it feels. Right now, the cell-based beef created by Takeuchi has no color and they put food coloring in to make it look reddish.

Shaun McKenna  13:49  

OK, so it sounds like a tentative “yes” from you. 

Tomoko Otake  13:52 

That's right. 

Shaun McKenna  13:53

Well, after the break, we'll find out if the rest of Japan feels the same way.

Clip from Happy TV Media  14:07  

Shaun McKenna  14:19  

That was a 2-year-old clip from the YouTube account for Happy TV Media, which is based out of Singapore. The host there was asking Singaporeans what they thought about their country being the first nation in the world to approve cultured meat products for sale. Those products came from Californian company Eat Just, who also provided the meal that Oscar described at the top of the show. Tomoko from the random sampling in that clip, it seems like Singaporeans were at least up for giving cultured meat a chance. What do people in Japan think about it?

Tomoko Otake  14:48  

Well, making it is one thing, but getting people to eat is another. Right now Singapore is the only country in the world to allow the sale of cultured meat. In Japan, though, a survey of 4,000 people was done in 2021 by researcher Aiko Hibino, and that found that 32% expressed some interest in trying out cultured meat, while 34% said they had no or little interest.

Shaun McKenna  15:19  

What about the other 34%?

Tomoko Otake  15:21  

Um, they're not sure, or they cannot agree with either side, which is understandable because some people in Japan may not have even heard of this concept yet. They're not actually opposed to it, it's just a matter of how it's presented, I think. So when they were asked whether cultured meat could help solve the world's food crisis, nearly half the people were OK with the concept.

Shaun McKenna  15:47  

I guess those kinds of surveys aren't perfect either. Like when those shoppers are faced with the decision of whether to buy real meat or cultured meat in the actual supermarket, they may stick with what they know. How do Japanese consumers compare to people overseas?

Tomoko Otake  16:04  

Well, I think it's worth noting that people overseas are more likely to want to try it, perhaps more because it's considered an environmentally responsible form of dining. But in the same survey that I just talked about, people in their 20s seem more keen to try it, perhaps because they are more environmentally conscious of what they eat.

Shaun McKenna  16:25  

Those are young people in Japan. 

Tomoko Otake  16:28  

That's right. 

Shaun McKenna  16:29

One thing we haven't made clear is that we're not talking about plant-based meat, which has already arrived in Japan. Do you know if that's convincing people to switch from actual meat?

Tomoko Otake  16:41  

Well, I can only say that there has been an increase in those types of products, particularly in Japanese supermarkets. I think a lot of them became popular during the pandemic, because they were perceived as a healthier choice. So I think that was more of a factor than environmental concerns in getting Japanese people to change their diet.

Shaun McKenna  17:05  

I guess also in Japan, there's a dietary history of, like, tofu and soy products, so it's not that big a jump. Um, does Japan have any problems with food shortages at the moment? I know that there's a risk of eel and tuna kind of disappearing.

Tomoko Otake  17:20  

That's right. Overall, Japan's food self-sufficiency rate on the basis of calories intake is very low. It currently stands at 36%.

Shaun McKenna  17:30  

OK, so that's the number of calories needed to sustain the population? As an average. OK. 36%.

Tomoko Otake  17:38  

That's pretty low. For comparison, Canada's food self sufficiency rate is 255%.

Shaun McKenna  17:47  

Oh, 255% compared to Japan's 36%? 

Tomoko Otake  17:51  

That's correct. Whereas in Australia, the rate is 233%. 

Shaun McKenna  17:57  

Wow. How about Europe? 

Tomoko Otake  17:59  

Well, rates in Europe are a bit lower, 68% in Britain and 59% in Italy, but Japan wants to raise its rates to 45% by 2030.

Shaun McKenna  18:11  

So currently, Japan has to import a lot of its food, is what you're saying. Are they perhaps thinking that cultured meat could play a role in changing that dependency in the future?

Tomoko Otake  18:21  

Yes. And that says I think they are thinking cultured meat could help in the future. Actually, you also mentioned eel and tuna right? Baiyō-gyo is the term for cultured fish.

Shaun McKenna  18:33  

Baiyō-gyo, OK. Yeah, you’d think that given the culinary traditions of Japan, scientists here might try to focus work on lab-grown fish?

Tomoko Otake  18:42  

Well, actually, research here is actually slow compared to Singapore, where the cultured seafood startup Shiok Meats, is trying to seek approval to sell a lab-grown shrimp by April. 

Shaun McKenna  18:54  

Now, I did read that there's a company in Japan called Food and Life Companies. Do you know them?

Tomoko Otake  18:59  

Yeah, they operate the Sushiro, the conveyor-belt sushi restaurant chain.

Shaun McKenna  19:04  

Oh OK, well, they're working with the U.S. startup called Blue Nalu, that's developing cell culture seafood products.

Tomoko Otake  19:10  

Yes, they're trying to develop toro, so bluefin tuna, and other sushi-grade products. Also, in August, Maruha Nichiro, which is a major fishery, agriculture and food-processing company, announced that they're going to form a joint research and development project on baiyō-gyo with a Japanese startup called IntegriCulture. And Ichimasa, who makes kamaboko fish cakes.

Shaun McKenna  19:35  

Those who've been to Japan may have seen kamaboko, right? It's white and has a pink border. It looks like candy, but it's fish.

Tomoko Otake  19:43  

Yes, it definitely doesn't taste like candy.

Shaun McKenna  19:46  

Well Tomoko Otake, thanks for joining us on Deep Dive.

Tomoko Otake  19:49  

Thanks for having me.

Shaun McKenna  19:54  

Thanks again to Tomoko Otake for coming onto the podcast. You can find a link to her story in the show notes, and of course, check out her byline for the latest developments on COVID-19 and other science- and health-related topics too. And thanks again to Oscar Boyd for joining us at the top of the program. 

Elsewhere in The Japan Times, after a video of a Japanese teenager acting unhygienically at a Sushiro conveyor-belt sushi restaurant went viral, the Japanese phrase “sushi terrorism” was seemingly everywhere. Patrick St. Michel used the incident to look at pranking on Japanese social media. Check out that story and more at the Production for Deep Dive is by Dave Cortez. Our intern is Natalia Makohon, and the outgoing track is by Oscar Boyd. Our theme song is by the Japanese artist LLLL. Thanks for joining us and, until next time, podtsukaresama.