‘In some years past, it was right to call it science fiction, because it hadn’t yet been done,’ says Josh Tetrick. ‘Right now, in Singapore, people are buying this, and eating it, and saying it tastes like chicken.’
Tetrick is the co-founder and CEO of Eat Just, Inc. ‘It’, the thing that tastes like chicken, is cultured meat, also referred to as cultivated or lab-grown meat. To make it, the San Francisco-based company takes a chicken cell, ‘feeds’ it amino acids, vitamins and minerals, and brings it to fruition in a big, shiny bioreactor.
‘The end product is not plant-based, it’s not mushroom-based, it’s not soy-based, it is real meat,’ Tetrick says. So, if you sit down and you have one of our chicken breasts and you have a chicken allergy, you’re gonna have an allergic reaction. It is real chicken, it’s just made in a different way.’
Eat Just is one of close to a hundred cultured meat companies catalogued by the Good Food Institute, a global non-profit that aims to advance meat, egg and dairy alternatives. Upside Foods, also in California, is among the best known. Then there’s India’s ClearMeat, Australia’s Vow Food, Mexico’s Micro Meat and Israel’s Aleph Farms. Between them, they’ve crafted methods to produce kill-free beef, kangaroo, alpaca and all manner of poultry. Further forms of flesh are in the works.
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‘The work is inherently global in nature, since the challenges and opportunities facing our food system are global in scope,’ says Zak Weston, GFI’s supply chain manager. The challenges include getting cultured meat, currently only cleared for sale and consumption in Singapore, to more people.
Most cultured meat makers share common goals to reduce animal slaughter, significantly shrink the amount of natural resources required for conventional meat production, inhibit foodborne disease and, ultimately, create a more sustainable way to feed the world.
The phenomenon’s proponents and financially interested parties cite not having to kill animals among its obvious benefits, along with environmental pluses like land and water preservation. Its critics have cited the high energy requirements for cultured meat production (though that could change), expected initial prohibitively high cost to consumers (expected to fall with time and product scale), and existential threat to the integrity of the word ‘meat’ among its drawbacks. There is plenty of time to argue about it all.
‘I think it’s inevitable that this is going to be the world’s meat,’ Tetrick says. ‘But what’s not inevitable is that it’s going to happen in the next ten to 20 years, or the next 200 years. And I think our job is to get it closer to 20 than 200, and that is to be seen in the years ahead.’
Regulatory approval is key to the trajectory. Companies can innovate until the cultured cows come home, but until their products are cleared for consumer sale and consumption, they won’t crack the zeitgeist. Projections are vague. ‘We cannot speak to questions about timing of market entry at this time,’ a spokesperson for the USA FDA says, for example.
The Singapore Food Agency was a leader when it approved the sale of Eat Just’s Good Meat brand cultured chicken nuggets in December 2020.
Tetrick says that only around 700 orders have been sold in Singapore to date, but Laura Kantor, marketing and sustainability director for delivery platform foodpanda says that isn’t for lack of interest. Items like Madame Fan restaurant’s cultured chicken dumplings, stir fry and salad often sell out. The service frequently fields questions about where to find more.
‘We have good reasons to believe that 2022 will be a year of exceptional growth for cultivated meat in Singapore, especially since the recent announcement around the approved sale of more cultivated meat products,’ Kantor says. ‘From this year onwards, Good Meat will be allowed to sell new types of cultivated chicken products, including chicken breast, and we are confident that these will be equally popular among our customers when they are available on our platform.’
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Married couple Nadia Alsagoff and Kristoffer Munden were among the first people in the world to taste the rare morsels. They are members of 1880, a private club in Singapore. Alsagoff and Munden were invited to a multi-course dinner last February that promised a kind of triple-threat exclusivity. The menu ‘outlined the origins of chicken all the way through to a possible future ruined by catastrophic climate change’, Munden says.
‘The final course featured two dishes that represented the world’s two largest chicken consumers: the United States and China,’ Munden says. ‘The US dish was a chicken and waffle, while the Chinese dish was a bao with homemade hoisin sauce. In both dishes, the chicken was served nugget-style: breaded and fried.’
‘Since this was our first time trying cultured chicken, we scrutinised the aroma, flavour and texture very carefully,’ he says. ‘Aroma-wise, it smelled like chicken. We really couldn’t tell any difference in flavour; both tasted like very tasty chicken nuggets. The only difference we could sense was in the texture; this chicken seemed a little bit more grainy than your typical chicken breast. This is likely because the muscle fibers in the cultured chicken are shorter than those in a conventional chicken. Despite this slightly different texture, we would not have been able to tell the difference between this and any other conventional chicken nugget.’
‘Once it becomes more widely available, I won’t have any issues eating it more regularly,’ Munden says.
Trendologist Kara Nielsen tracks this kind of sentiment. Nielsen is the food and drink director at global trend insight service WGSN. After regulatory approval, ‘the next thing is customer approval,’ she says. ‘People have to want to eat it and feel like it’s safe.’
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Nielsen’s been studying this space for many years, and explains why cultured meat has only recently become a big talking point.
‘It’s just becoming more of a reality now,’ she says. ‘Ten years ago, five years ago, you could have found information about it, but it had to prove itself. Now the science has proven itself.’
It’s also ‘part of a general consciousness raising of your average consumer’, she says.
‘People have been forced to consider, “where is our food coming from? How do I shop for food and supplies? Do I need to be reconsidering that?”’ Nielsen says. ‘We’re also looking at 15 years of millennials coming into the consumer marketplace, and bringing a new set of values, including environmentalism, including fair labour. It’s part of a much bigger shift in understanding of the food system.’
GFI’s Weston points to a recent study of UK and US consumers that seems encouraging for the field. Among those surveyed, 88 percent of Gen Z, 85 percent of millennials, 77 percent of Gen X and 72 percent of baby boomers were ‘at least somewhat open to trying cultivated meat’, according to the findings.
‘A lot of consumers are interested, they’re curious,’ Weston says. ‘To get a food product going, all you really need is a small core of early adopters who become loyal, repeat customers, that enables you to build your brands, invest in R&D, invest in sales and marketing.’
Weston, like everyone interviewed for this article, cautioned that cultured meat still has long strides to make in technology, production, regulatory approval and consumer interest before achieving ubiquity. But there are notable benchmarks like Singapore’s approval of Good Meat cultured chicken.
This year, he expects to see more products coming onto the market and further technological advances.
‘Pretty much every year, we could write a report or a story on why this was such a foundational year for cultivating because every year truly is,’ he says. ‘And it’s coming closer and closer to scientific reality, but we’re just not there yet.’
‘There’ could mean a few different things. World-renowned chef José Andrés (an Eat Just board member) plans to include Good Meat cultured chicken on one of his US menus once it’s legal in the country. Tetrick imagines a future where it’ll be readily available at the supermarket. Weston looks ahead to a time when cultured meat makers are manufacturing proteins untasted in recent generations, if ever. Kantor says that foodpanda is eyeing expansion in other markets. And Nielsen points out that it isn’t just meat that’s being replicated, but also things like chocolate and coffee.
‘Right now, [the term] cultured/cultivated meat is kind of weird, right?’ Tetrick says. ‘It’s a little bizarre, it’s strange, it’s hard to get used to. Eventually, I want this to be boring. I don’t want there to be any interest in it, because it’s just meat. It’s just what we’re eating for dinner.’