Cultivated meat is on the horizon, but has long way to go before it hits grocery shelves
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Cultivated meat — an emerging food technology that grows meat from animal cells inside a tank, instead of a farm or feedlot — recently had a win: The Food and Drug Administration has approved a chicken product grown this way by California-based company Good Meat.
It’s only the second company to get that agency’s greenlight. The USDA still has to sign off before U.S. consumers can buy the stuff.
The taste of meat is nostalgic for Joshua Tetrick, who runs Good Meat. “I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama on a lot of fried chicken and barbecues,” he said.
His company produces meat without raising animals. So-called “cultivated meat” starts with a few animal cells. They’re cultured in a bioreactor — essentially fed and grown — to multiply and become edible meat.
“From a single cell, you can make ultimately billions of pounds of meat without all the resources that go into making meat today,” Tetrick said.
And, he argued, without creating as much greenhouse gas. “The animals we eat are responsible for more carbon emissions than all the transportation sources combined,” Tetrick said. “So we’ve got a meat problem.”
It’s a meat problem that more than 100 cultivated meat companies around the world are trying to solve. But shoppers won’t see it at the grocery store any time soon. For one, it’s still expensive to make — more than $100 pound, Tetrick said.
Good Meat is working on scaling up. The FDA approval was big. So now, the company is getting its ducks in a row. (Or chickens, as it were.)
But it’ll take work to sway consumers, according to Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economist at Purdue University.
“The average consumer is still pretty skittish about the cultivated meat products,” he said.
Younger consumers are the target demographic here. “In part because they tend to be a bit more concerned about environment and animal welfare, but also because they tend to be more novelty-seeking and more willing to try new things,” Lusk said.
New technologies often take time before they’re embraced by — and become affordable for — buyers. Elliot Swartz is a lead scientist with the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for conventional meat alternatives. He says to think of electric vehicles.
“It’s taken a lot of time and investments to get battery costs down where now we can have electric cars that compete in the marketplace on performance, on price,” Swartz said.
Just like the vehicle industry took a phased approach to electric cars by introducing hybrids, cultivated meat products will start off as hybrids too.
“Where you’re actually mixing animal cells with other plant-based ingredients as a means to sort of dilute the higher cost of production of the animal cells,” Swartz said.
If these companies can get cultivated meat onto consumers’ dinner plates, Swartz believes that ultimately the product will speak for itself. He’s tried Good Meat’s chicken — nuggets and satay skewers, to be precise. And he said it tasted like what it was: chicken.
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