The way you eat chicken may not change, but the way your chicken is produced may soon look unrecognizable.
For the first time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ruled this week that lab-grown meat — cultured chicken from Upside Foods — is safe to eat, calling it “cultured chicken cell material.” It described the company’s harvest of “multicellular tissue for use as human food” rather unattractive, and the cultured chicken cells as having “characteristics of muscle and connective tissue.”
The meat, unlike the butchered variety, is cultured with animal cells and grown in a lab. There’s still a long way to go before you can buy it at your grocery store, but Wednesday’s green light was an important regulatory step, and the implications of the technology are intriguing.
From an environmental point of view, the process has several advantages. For example, less land is needed than with traditional methods, which could reduce deforestation and biodiversity loss – consider the entire area of jungle cleared for cattle grazing. And compared to slaughterhouses, less water is needed and there is less pollution. That helps explain why Leonard DiCaprio, a big environmentalist in addition to being a Hollywood celebrity, has invested in a number of meat-growing startups, including Mosa Meat and Aleph Farms.
Of course, the thought of flesh growing in large tanks is hardly appealing. But the process could produce cleaner and safer meat than sprawling slaughterhouses, which are particularly vulnerable to contamination from E. coli, salmonella and other pathogens.
Lab-grown meat could also tackle the growing risk of antibiotic resistance. The overuse of antibiotics in factory farms is fueling more antibiotic-resistant infections in humans, leading to “longer hospital stays, higher medical costs and increased mortality,” according to the World Health Organization.
For now, lab-grown meat is not cost-competitive with conventional varieties. Then again, the same was true of plant-based meat at first, but today you can buy a six-pack of Impossible “burger” patties for under $13.49 at Target.
Some people may have ethical problems with using fetal bovine serum — obtained by collecting blood from the unborn calves of pregnant cows after slaughter — to make some lab-grown meat. But several companies are trying to shift away from that to animal-free options.
The regulatory process is yet to go. Upside Foods still needs to be cleared by the Food Safety and Inspection Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But “this milestone marks a major step towards a new era in meat production,” CEO Uma Valeti said in a statement. “I am thrilled that American consumers will soon have the opportunity to eat delicious meat grown directly from animal cells.”
If you can’t wait for the products to hit shelves in America, head to Singapore, which has already approved meat for lab sale. Last year in the city-state, GOOD Meat, another cultured meat startup, said a Cantonese restaurant at a JW Marriott resort would begin replacing the meat in its traditional steamed chicken buns with the cultured variety.
“No-kill meat will replace conventional meat at some point in our lives.” The faster we make that happen, the healthier our planet will be,” Josh Tetrick, CEO of GOOD Meat parent Eat Just, said at the time.
Other eateries and notable chefs have since agreed to cook with lab-grown meat, and in June GOOD Meat pioneered Asia’s largest cultured meat facility.
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