No evidence that lab-grown meat causes ‘turbo-cancer’

3 May 2024
What was claimed

A study has shown that fake meat causes cancer.

Our verdict

No study has shown this, and there are many good reasons to think that lab-grown meat does not cause any kind of cancer.

A post on Facebook falsely claims that ‘fake meat’ causes something called “turbo cancer”. The post shares a screenshot of an old article with the headline: “Study Reveals Bill Gates’ Fake Meat Causes ‘Turbo Cancers’ in Humans”.

This is completely untrue. The ‘study’ in question is actually an article citing another article in Bloomberg, which did not say that there was any link between lab-grown meat and cancer in humans.

Indeed the Bloomberg article says: “There’s no evidence that cultured meat cells are going to become cancerous in a diner’s body. Most of the scientists I spoke with for this story say that worst case, our digestive enzymes would break down any animal cancer cells we ate.”

Bad information can be harmful, especially if people use it to make decisions about their health. 

Mr Gates is a common subject for misinformation. We’ve written many fact checks on false or misleading claims about him before. He is on record promoting meat alternatives and has invested in various companies that produce plant-based or cultured alternatives. 

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Where did this come from?  

As far as we can tell, this claim first appeared in February 2023 on The People’s Voice website (formerly News Punch), which has been the subject of previous fact checks by Full Fact and other fact checking organisations

The People’s Voice article claims that lab-grown meat has “been shown to cause cancer via the immortalised cell lines used to manufacture it”. It cites another article in the National Pulse and both refer to a report from Bloomberg

However, the Bloomberg article explains that there is no evidence that lab-grown meat causes cancer, and actually describes the risk of people incorrectly believing this.  Indeed, it cites a footnote from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which said that “even fully cancerous cells would be safe to eat because they stop growing after they leave the bioreactor, and cooking and digestion will break them down harmlessly. ‘We did not identify any properties of the cells as described that would render them different from other animal cells with respect to safety for food use,’ the FDA said.”

The only study that is remotely referenced by The People’s Voice is from The Defender website which cites a report that does not look at lab grown meat, nor does it mention cancer or tumours in humans.

What are immortalised cells?

Lab-grown or cultured meat (which the People’s Voice calls “fake meat”) is made up of real animal cells that have been cultured in a lab, instead of being produced by slaughtering animals.

The Bloomberg article explains that some cultured meat companies use “immortalised” animal cells for this process. This means the cells have been altered so that they can overcome the natural limits that result in cell ageing and degradation. 

This process has been around for many decades and enables cells to live longer and, in theory, divide indefinitely. The normal cell cycle is manipulated using a variety of bioengineering techniques to bring about the desired properties and outcomes for that cell. Similar processes are already used for research and therapeutics across a wide range of fields.

What does this have to do with cancer?

It’s not clear what “turbo cancer” is supposed to be. It is not a medically recognised term, but it seems to mean cancers that are aggressive and grow rapidly.

The article’s concerns regarding cancer, or “turbo cancer”, appear to stem from the belief that immortalisation effectively makes cells more like cancer cells. 

Cancer refers to a group of conditions where abnormal cells multiply in an uncontrolled way and invade surrounding tissues. Cancer cells have various characteristics that make them different to normal cells. Some cancer cell properties include disordered control of growth and specialisation (the cell doesn’t mature enough to undertake its specific function), as well as differences in how they communicate. 

Although relative ‘immortality’ is a feature of cancer cells, other features need to be present in order for cancer to develop.  As Elliot Swartz from the Good Food Institute told the Associated Press in 2023, “all cancers are immortalised but not all immortalised cells are cancer”.

Cultured meat can be made using cells that have or haven’t been immortalised. A comprehensive review published by the Institute of Food Technologists says that genetically engineered cell lines, including immortalised cell lines, should be assessed for safety for human consumption. 

Singapore approved the sale of cultured chicken in 2020, and the US recently approved the sale of cultivated chicken from two companies after deeming that it was safe to eat.

Although there is no evidence that cultured meat causes cancer, there is evidence that processed meat increases the risk of bowel cancer. The World Health Organisation also classes unprocessed red meat as a probable cause for cancer, although this isn’t something that we know for certain.

Image courtesy of Ivan Radic

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