Will lab-grown meat ever rival the real thing? We ask the expert

There are many complicated words for my diet – flexitarian, reducetarian, carnesparsian (from carne meaning meat, and eating it sparsely, because there is nothing like using Latin to give heritage to something made up online). I’m not alone: a third of Britons have reduced eating meat because of concerns about industrial farming. Soon to launch into this space is “lab-grown meat”, promising to take the slaughter and environmental exploitation out of your steak. But how does it work? And can it deliver? I spoke to Benjamina Bollag, founder of lab-grown bacon producer Higher Steaks.

Hi Benjamina! So you’re bringing home the bacon …
And pork belly! As far as I know, we’re the only cultivated pork belly producer.

Presumably you’re doing steaks, too?
Actually, no. But a friend came up with the name and it stuck.

Hey, names matter. Tofurky, facon, seitan. People undervalue the role of puns in a sustainable lifestyle. So how does lab-grown meat actually work?
We take a few high-quality cells from a pig, and feed those cells nutrients, expanding them to kilograms, into muscle and fat, which we then work to take the form of the final product.

Sounds … Frankenstein-y. How did you get into this?
My background’s in chemical engineering and I was concerned about farming’s impact on the environment and on people’s health. In the US, there are as many antibiotics used on pigs as on humans. That can lead to antibiotic resistance, and that’s serious.

But haven’t we been here before? Farming fish was supposed to relieve pressure on wild fish. But we just ate more fish, and our oceans and rivers remain depleted. Couldn’t the same thing happen with bacon?
I believe we can get to the point where people go to the supermarket and find cultivated meat that has the exact same taste, smell, look and price, so they couldn’t differentiate it in a blind taste test. Why would anyone choose conventional meat then?

For dramatic effect, maybe? Like when Ozzy Osbourne bit a bat. But can lab-grown meat really achieve an identical taste and texture?
Some plant-based products already have, with sausages and nuggets. But it’s trickier with bacon and pork belly.

Plant-based products? All these meat alternatives can be confusing. There’s plant-based “meat”, which emulates meat using plant proteins. Then lab-grown meat, which starts with meat cells and may use plant nutrients, but is still animal product.
There’s also hybrid meat, which we’re working on – it mixes cultivated and plant-based meat to help on price.

Plant-based ingredients are cheaper than growing cells, gotcha. What about other diets, say, kosher or halal?
It’s a big debate. We spoke to several rabbis about it, all with contradictory opinions. We’ll keep listening and see.

You’ve been working on your products for four years. Few journalists have tried a lab-grown meat sample and the ones who have didn’t love it. None of it is on sale except for some nuggets in Singapore. So, the big question: when will lab-grown meat be ready?
I can’t say. Our plan is to work with restaurants first, then supermarkets. But a lot of it will be down to regulatory issues rather than the product. The consumer interest is really encouraging, though, as is the growing industry. The UK is doing an amazing job with alternative proteins.