Almost all of the chicken ever eaten was once part of a real bird, but that’s slowly changing. Two firms have successfully convinced US regulators to let them start selling lab-grown chicken. That doesn’t mean another meatless substitute, though. Meat is still on the menu, except this bit of bird was conjured up from a few cells extracted from a live chicken. The laboratory meat won’t be available widely yet, but this is a big step for the future of food.
The US Department of Agriculture has granted Upside Foods and Good Meat authorization to begin selling their lab-grown meat in restaurants. The approval does not come out of left field—the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined last year that laboratory-produced chicken meat was safe for human consumption. That makes sense, considering it’s made of all the same constituents as “real” chicken. It’s simply composed of cells cultured inside a steel tank instead of cultured inside a chicken.
Good Meat already sells lab-grown cutlets, nuggets, shredded meat, and satays in Singapore, the first nation to allow sales. Upside Foods has a similar product line (those are its chicken nuggets above), but it is focused on the US market and has relied on big investments to get there. It took in $400 million in funding just last year
The cost to produce meat in the lab is still very high, but investors are betting that production costs will come down as the price of real meat continues to go up. According to Upside, cultured meat is much more efficient when you consider the environmental impacts of farming. Producing a calorie of energy from meat uses about 100 times as much water as a calorie of grain, it claims. Its production facility can currently make about 50,000 pounds of cultured meat in a year, but it hopes to expand capacity to 400,000 pounds per year soon.
The high price and low supply mean you won’t be able to get these products at the grocery store yet. Instead, the companies will partner with upscale restaurants for now. Upside will supply a San Francisco restaurant called Bar Crenn, and Good Meat will work with a Washington DC restaurant owned by celebrity chef Jose Andrés. But in a few years, you may begin to see cultured meat products in more places. There are more than 150 companies around the world working to make these foods tasty and cheap enough to replace meat in your diet, and eventually, someone will figure it out.