Two cultured meat companies — Eat Just and Upside Foods — recently received full approvals from the USDA to sell lab-grown chicken products in the United States. The federal green light comes months after the two companies received confirmation from the Food and Drug Administration that their cell-farmed meat was safe for consumption. human.
Both companies started small, so it will be a while before you can buy their products at the grocery store. Upside Foods plans to sell its farmed chicken to a San Francisco restaurant called Bar Crenn, while Eat Just’s brand, Good Meats, is partnering with a Washington, D.C. restaurant owned by celebrity chef and restaurateur Jose Andrés.
Is lab-grown meat the way of the future?
To better understand how farmed meat affects the meat industry, Yahoo News spoke with Bill Winders, a professor of sociology specializing in food and agriculture at Georgia Tech and co-editor of “Global Meat: The Social and Environmental Implications of an Expanding Meat Industry.” Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Yahoo News: How will this change the way we eat meat – and food in general?
Bill Winders: I don’t think it’s going to change much in the way we eat meat or food in general, in part because initially, it’s going to be a really small contribution to overall meat production in the United States. In 2021, we produced about 21 million metric tons of chicken. That’s about 46 billion pounds of chicken in that one year. So Upside Foods, whatever it produces over the next year or five — or even the next decade — isn’t going to be that important in light of the meat industry in general.
What about the long term? Is this the beginning of the end of plant cultivation as we know it?
From 2014 until today, the consumption and marketing of plant-based meat alternatives such as Impossible and Beyond Meat have increased dramatically. But it did not change meat production patterns. In fact, the big meat companies, like Tyson and others, have actually gotten into the plant-based meat business. Part of that was because they saw that plant-based meat was a niche market that was profitable, and so they went into that market and made sure, basically, that it wouldn’t interfere with the profits that they were making in traditional plant farming.
So I wouldn’t be surprised to see the same thing happen with cultured meat — that once it becomes profitable and there is a niche in the market for it, the big meat companies will get in too. And in some ways, it can help protect against those alternatives: like farm-raised and plant-based meat that impacts what the big meat companies really find profits for — traditional or industrial industrial meat production.
Could cell-farmed meat be in competition with plant-based meat alternatives, such as Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat?
Plant-based meat has increased faster than I think lab-grown meat will. Vegan meat uses pea or soy protein, and there are plenty of soybeans and other field crops that can be used for these purposes, so it was easier for them to ramp up production relatively quickly. But lab-grown meat has the added complication that lab-grown meat is very expensive to produce. It is a capital and technology intensive process, in a way that differs from vegan alternatives.
Does lab-grown meat taste different from conventional meat? Is it more or less nutritious?
I’ve never tried lab-grown meat, but my understanding is that it tastes relatively the same. What I’ve read is that sometimes the color may be a little paler, and differ slightly from conventionally produced meat. But other than that, in terms of nutrition and in terms of taste, I think it’s almost indistinguishable.
Will there be regulations about disavowing that chickens are grown in a lab? Or could I get a cell-grown chicken at a restaurant and not even know it?
The recent ruling by the USDA was that lab-grown chickens would be classified as “cell-grown.” So once it’s in stores, when consumers go into the meat section of a grocery store and look at different types of meat, if they see one labeled “cell cultured,” then it was lab-grown.
But I don’t know how this ruling affects the restaurants that serve it. I suppose that since it hits restaurants first, and there are chefs collaborating with different companies like Upside Foods to sell lab-grown chicken in their restaurants, they’ll advertise it, because they want people to know they can eat this lab-grown meat.
For people who don’t eat meat for ethical reasons, can farmed meat be considered a more ethical alternative?
It is complicated. Certainly for people who are vegetarians or vegans for ethical reasons involving how animals are raised and the fact that they are slaughtered, lab-grown meat seems to overcome these kinds of problems, because there is no slaughter, and the animals are not raised in small cages. However, for many vegetarians and vegans, animal consumption is really the problem, so I would expect lab-grown meat would not be as appealing.
I think the biggest appeal may be for people who eat meat and may be aware of issues of inhumane treatment or may be conflicted about the slaughter of animals when they think about it. This may be a way to be able to continue with the same dietary choices they have made without experiencing inhumane treatment or other forms of animal violence.
Could cultured meat help solve some of the bigger problems facing us today, like world hunger or the environmental impact of factory farming?
In terms of world hunger, it’s really hard to imagine a situation where lab-grown meat alleviates world hunger or increases access to meat, in part because it’s going to be very expensive for the foreseeable future. I think lab-grown meat, at first, it’s really clear how it’s going towards a really high-end niche market in the US, because it’s based in San Francisco, it’s concentrated in certain restaurants that have celebrity chefs, and I haven’t heard any proponents of lab-grown meat suggest that it has those influences.
Environmentally, it is not clear how much energy will be used by the production of cultured meat versus the production of industrial meat. There may be environmental trade-offs. The methane that is produced and the carbon dioxide emissions from industrial meat production are very large, and eliminating or reducing them would do a lot of good for the environment, but we need to take some time to think about how much energy and emissions would be produced in lab-grown meat.