Archived version here.

There are multiple companies working on the problem of lab-grown meat (aka "cultured meat"). Supermeat is trying to grow synthetic chicken meat in an Israeli restaurant. The makers of Just Egg have sold cultured chicken meat to a restaurant in Singapore. Wild Type is even making lab-grown salmon, which I'm personally excited about[1].

The goal is good: end the need for factory farming, while still giving humans something meat-styled to eat [2].

And yet, a scandal may be brewing right under our noses.

Someday soon, as the cultured-meat industry ramps up and new firms enter the market, we could witness this scenario: A restaurant or company finds it cheaper to secretly produce real meat, and more lucrative to label it as lab-grown.

If this happened, the headlines would be irresistible. Real meat being sold to bougie vegans like a counterfeit Gucci bag... it's hilarious! It's also unethical, unsafe, and will likely lead to the end of that company (unless they're already a huge diversified producer).

My Prediction

A private cultured-meat-focused company (anywhere in the world) will become embroiled in a scandal, wherein they'll be correctly accused of having intentionally sold non-cultured meat[3] as cultured meat, for longer than 1 contiguous month, in secret.

What counts:

  • A Theranos-style years-long con.
  • A 1-month-long "desperate measure" directed by high-level executives. The CEO doesn't need a paper trail showing it, but at least like the VP Of Food or something.
  • "It was a temporary solution, we just 'accidentally' used it for a long time".
  • It still counts even if the company calls it a "beta", as long as they're selling it for money to end-users and/or restaurants.

What doesn't count:

  • Some guy at a MacBonald's accidentally (or "accidentally") giving someone a normal burger when they ordered a MacCulteredBurger.
  • Chefs serving non-cultured meat, at a restaurant that serves lab-grown meat, as part of an internal sabotage or slowdown.
  • This April Fools' Day joke (which was my first result for googling "fake meat real meat scandal lab grown").
  • The company tries to do this, but they blow their cover in one month or quicker.
  • The company does this for a total of one month, but on a split/on-and-off basis. (However, it does count if any "on" chunk of time this happens in, is longer than 1 month.w)
  • This happens with some guy's food truck. It has to be a Real Company With Meaningful Legal Existence And (preferably) Accredited Investors. A semi-obscure Chinese corporation would count, but a sole proprietor's food truck wouldn't.

My Reasoning:

  • Lab-grown meat will be mostly indistinguishable from "normal" meat
  • Most, or all, consumers will not be able to tell lab-grown from farmed meat.
  • Lab-grown meat will attain a "bougie" status/price-point, similar to some vegan/"ethnic" foods.
  • Lab-grown meat will initially be more expensive to produce and/or prepare, compared to farmed meat.

Timeline

This will happen before midnight UTC on December 1, 2030. If the prediction is right but happens a small amount of time later than this deadline, I'll count it partly-wrong but still feel about as good as if I were fully right. If it happens in like 2032, I'll count it wrong and just feel bad.

Confidence

Uhhhhhhh let's say 65%. This was calibrated through discussion with Devin.


  1. Some claim the manufacturing processes involved may not scale to feed lots of people. See here for that case. ↩︎

  2. It's not just about taste; many nutritional benefits accrue to eating some animal products. Unfortunately, the healthiest (eggs and fish) may also cause the most animal suffering per kilogram demanded (see here for even more on this topic). There are also various reasons to think that these animal products can be unusually good for your health. Whole foods and less-processed foods are generally pretty good, while case-by-case vitamin supplements are not so good. If you're a paleo dieter or Nassim-Taleb-style conservative or just a rationalist who's looked at the data for a while, you likely think unprocessed animal products are complicated enough that we can't use substitutes. For instance, if you see that eggs are healthy, and make the object-level choice "I'll just eat beans to get my protein needs", you'd end up going blind because you forgot the incredibly important vitamin B12 (which appears in the complicated accrued nutritional makeup of an egg).

    But as long as you grow the whole animal and leave out the pain cells (aka "nociceptors"), you should get, in aggregate, the same benefits of the meat without causing any animal suffering[4]. So the only theoretical problem would be if the taste, texture, or nutrition content of meat depended more than a trivial amount on the chemistry of nociceptors. Unless those turn out to be the main sources of vitamin B12, I'm not holding my breath.

    Of course, lab-grown meat will be different from normal meat in other ways, but they seem generally beneficial (e.g., avoiding spooky growth hormones and pesticides). A Taleb-style critique could still make theoretical sense (well, on his terms) if the gene modifications are large, untested, and/or poorly-understood. (If you disagree with such Taleb-style critiques on principle, you can skip all that and just eat the egg). ↩︎

  3. i.e., produced by killing animals ↩︎

  4. If the nociceptors are not the only component, leaving out the entire nervous system and related components is also doable. Devin points me to Chalmers' Vulcan trolley problem, though I'm not really sold on Chalmers' intuition. Also kinda confused about the nature/relevance/existence of valence for other reasons. ↩︎

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There's been a handful of kashrus scandals where people mixed in meat from other supply chains into stuff that was supposed to be kosher certified, which seems a useful reference point for how this can slip through even with an extensive monitoring system intended to prevent that.

I agree. I think it is more likely that "real" meat will be mixed into lab-grown, to dilute the cost/keep up with the demand.

I think it is more likely that some wholesalers and retailers will be faking the lab-grown meat without the knowledge of the original producer, selling in similar boxes.

Does anyone really care? Food is ridden with scandals. Whether it's 'bean to bar' chocolate manufacturers or 'farm-to-table' restaurants or 'Italian' 'extra virgin' 'olive oil' (all of which must be put in scarequotes) or fish species, mislabeling is hardly a new thing. This morning you can read about how some Midwestern dude simply sold tens of millions of bushels of 'organic' corn & soybean for a decade+ (which everyone who worked with him and the certifying bodies knew perfectly well were no such thing, and that he's probably not alone because there's no checks and the money is huge). It's not going to dent 'organic' foodsales one whit.

True, just wanted to get the prediction registered and explained lol.

Unrelated to your bet, I hope that in future the artificial meat will become cheaper than the natural one, at which point there will be no incentive for this kind of cheating. Also, many people who don't care about animal suffering will switch to artificial meat simply because it will be cheaper in the supermarket.

Scandals like this would be embarassing, but mostly harmless.

Yeah, the basic energy math of trophic levels implies this will eventually be the case for at least some plant-based/manufactured substitutes.

Can we place bets?