Researchers explore future of lab-grown dairy

Published: Dec. 6, 2022 at 5:27 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Lab-grown milk and meat is part of a new field that experts say is growing rapidly. The FDA last month gave the go-ahead for chicken grown from animal cells to be consumed by humans. Now, Unilever, the parent company of Vermont’s own Ben & Jerry’s, is conducting research on ice cream that would remove traditional dairies from the equation.

“I’m the type of person that would try anything once,” said Wendy Hakken of Burlington

“If I would see it, I would try it,” said Cokkie Tamboezer from the Netherlands.

Unilever recently shared their ice cream research and development team is looking at a process to create what they call “cow-free dairy.” Officials wouldn’t confirm which of their three ice cream companies the technology could be applied to, but they said they hope to have more to share within the next few years.

Researchers at the University of Vermont say developments in this field could come even faster. “It’s growing faster than my expectations,” said Irfan Tahir, a PhD candidate at UVM’s biomaterials lab who is specifically working on cultured meat. But he says he follows the dairy process closely as part of the emerging field known as cellular agriculture. “Produce products that traditionally come from animals but now we are making them without the animals themselves.”

For milk, the process is known as precision fermentation and controls the protein that is being produced from cells. Tahir says because we know the genome of milk, scientists can tell microorganisms to produce the whey proteins found in milk, ultimately giving us lab-grown milk. “The idea is for the end product to be exactly the same as the one that comes from animals,” he said. The potential of cellular agriculture is massive, including reducing environmental impacts, speeding up food production, and improving animal welfare. The industry would need to be scaled up to meet demand. In milk’s case, Tahir sees serious economic impacts around dairy farming.

“It is the largest driving agriculture in our state and it is so important on so many levels to Vermonters to keep that intact,” said Mary White with the Vermont Farm Bureau and a dairy farmer herself.

She says the potential of lab-grown dairy should not be ignored but understands why it raises concern. She says as the science develops, it boils down to good labeling so that consumers can decide.

“Easily decipher what’s from a farm and what was lab-grown and how can the labels going to be consistent so the consumer can make the educated decision about what they are consuming.”

Tahir says 14 lab-grown food products already exist and are FDA-approved and there is a lot of room for growth. But for him, first and foremost is safety. “We need to make sure that whatever we are putting in front of the consumers is extremely safe, right, it has gone through all the steps instead of some kind of shortcut,” he said. He says he hopes people will do research on the topic for themselves before judging the products.

White also says she hopes a clear definition will be issued on what lab-grown milk and meat can be classified as by the federal regulators to ensure it is clear to consumers.