However, it might also be important to take a look at the ways in which cultured meat strays from what's considered normal. "Cultured meat just isn't normal," said Ben Wurgaft, an anthropology postdoctoral fellow at MIT. "It's not. There are all kinds of technical reasons why this is not normal." Wurgraft believes that it's important to highlight and discuss the differences between cultured and traditional meat because burying them does the consumer a disservice. Because there are differences and they should be talked about. Otherwise consumers, the people these products are entirely intended for, could feel swindled. They deserve to know how their food was made and how it got to their plate. That's especially true for something as groundbreaking as cultured meat. Transparency about such a large departure from the norm will be crucial to its success.
"I think that it would really be beneficial for anyone who's involved in the food system, whether they're working on these technologies or not, to really be open about what's happening so that people feel like they can make the decisions themselves and they don't feel like they've been duped," said Chesney.
When it comes to transparency, the companies developing cultured meat recognize the importance of it. "I think having a really open and honest conversation about what this technology is is extremely important," said Selden. In that interest, he tries to talk to people about cultured-meat technology as much as he can, whether that be to the media or at conferences. Mark Post, whose Maastricht University lab was behind that first cultured burger, spun out his research into Mosa Meat and has continued to participate in the university's annual conference on cultured meat. And Memphis Meats, which declined an interview for this piece, updates its website with images and videos of its ongoing product tastings.
But these companies, which are all working to develop commercially available products, have proprietary secrets that they have to keep under wraps. And while that hasn't prevented many of them from discussing cultured meat, it has kept them from giving us a solid look at their progress and their technology.
Wurgaft, who's working on a book about the effort to create cultured meat, said he's not one to assume it's right around the corner. "You have interested parties telling us that they've made progress, and they may have resolved some of the basic technical problems," he said. "But at present we have no way of really confirming this." He argues that the closed nature of this industry makes it hard to instill trust.
"It's hard to establish not just public trust but trust of people like myself if you can't tell us the full story about what's happening in labs," said Wurgaft. "I understand completely that they can't because of the nature of their responsibility to investors. And my beef isn't with the venture capital system itself, rather with its promissory character: We're saddled with stories and promises that we can't confirm, so we don't know how much hope to invest in them."
"We're saddled with stories and promises that we can't confirm, so we don't know how much hope to invest in them."
Where cultured-meat companies can't fully deliver, independent groups have stepped in. New Harvest, a nonprofit organization that funds cultured-meat and cellular-agriculture research, agrees that openness and transparency are necessary. It makes an effort to host honest discussions about the technology, its limitations and what it realistically can offer here and now. Erin Kim, New Harvest's communications director, said that misrepresenting the success of current technologies "just creates a disconnect between the public understanding of where the science is and where the products are versus the reality of it." She added, "I think that we should always maintain a critical eye to these things as well, and I don't think that this field should be afraid to critique itself and to be critiqued. We are definitely coming from a place of recognizing that there's still so much science that is yet to be done and that a lot of the conversation right now is still very speculative."
New Harvest currently funds six researchers working on cultured meat and offers smaller, shorter-term grants as well. One group receiving such funding is working on a bioreactor -- the device required to grow cultured meat at scale. "There has been all this talk about bioreactors for all these years, about how they're going to be like breweries and so on," said Kim. "Still, there was not an actual visible prototype of one of those bioreactors." But in January, New Harvest posted a picture of the research group's unfinished prototype, and the response was wild. "I think people were so excited to see, OK, this is potentially what one of these bioreactors could one day look like," said Kim.
It's not just academic groups that benefit from the work New Harvest does. Companies like Perfect Day Foods, which makes animal-free dairy products; Clara Foods, which is working on an animal-free egg white; and Finless Foods all have roots in New Harvest.
New Harvest's academic and open approach to cultured meat is shared by another group on the other side of the world. The Shojinmeat Project, based in Japan, is a citizen-science cultured-meat venture that encourages anyone who's interested to try their hand at growing their own meat. People involved in the project are growing everything from seashells to sea urchin, and Yuki Hanyu, Shojinmeat's founder, cultured and tried foie gras with a few other amateur meat growers. Additionally, in the spirit of open access, the group has published a cultured-meat recipe and instructions on how to build a small bioreactor at home, both online and in a comic book about cultured meat. "I appreciate the openness, because I think that there's still such a need for that that is unmet. And we're trying to fill those gaps with our effort, but the more other players can get in on that, the better," said Kim.
The need for transparency and openness in the introduction of new foods was a lesson learned quite deeply through GMOs. The technology was introduced and its products put into the food supply without a conversation with the people who would be eating it. To many, that felt like a trick. It looked like an industry was messing with their food and doing so secretively, and it led to a massive public backlash.
"I think a lot of the agriculture industry has learned lessons the hard way from the rolling out of GMOs," said Mary Haderlein, a new food and beverage strategist and principal of Hyde Park Group Food Innovation. "If you look at that history and you see what they did right and what they did terribly wrong, to kind of instill consumer confidence or nonconfidence, you just don't want to go down that road anymore."
"Not talking to the public about what you're putting into the food supply is a gigantic mistake," said Finless Foods CEO Mike Selden. "The backlash against GMOs was, in a way, warranted, not because GMOs are bad and not because GMOs are unhealthy or bad for the environment but because you're changing someone's food without explaining to them what you're doing. That warrants backlash."
Even those instrumental in bringing GMOs to the world realize that the lack of communication surrounding them at the time was a problem. About GMOs, Monsanto CTO Robert Fraley has said in the past, "If I could have do (sic) one thing differently I would have focused on communicating to the public."
With cultured meat, we're already seeing a difference. Cultured-meat products aren't even on the market yet, but the development of them has been in the news for years. Even if they can't give details on their own technology, cultured meat CEOs are talking about the products, answering questions and putting information in places where it's easy to find. Because secrecy about food doesn't do anybody -- consumer or producer -- any good.