The first lab-grown, or cultured, meat product has been given the green light to be sold for human consumption. In the landmark approval, regulators in Singapore granted Just, a San Francisco–based startup, the right to sell cultured chicken—in the form of chicken nuggets—to the public.
Just had been working with the regulators for the past two years and was formally granted approval on November 26. Singapore’s regulatory body assembled a panel of seven experts in food toxicology, bioinformatics, nutrition, epidemiology, public health policy, food science, and food technology to evaluate each stage of Just’s manufacturing process and make sure the chicken is safe to eat. “They didn’t just look at the final product; they looked at all the steps that led to that product,“ says Josh Tetrick, Just’s cofounder and CEO. “We were impressed with how thoughtful and rigorous they were.”
An as-yet-unnamed restaurant in Singapore will soon be the first to have Just’s cultured chicken on the menu, but Tetrick says he plans to expand after that. “We’ll go from a single restaurant to five to 10 and then eventually into retail and then after that, outside Singapore,” he says.
Most cultured meat is made in a similar way. Cells are taken from an animal, often via a biopsy or from an established animal cell line. These cells are then fed a nutrient broth and placed in a bioreactor, where they multiply until there are enough to harvest for use in meatballs or nuggets. A slew of startups have been founded using variations on this approach, in the belief that cultured meat will appeal to flexitarians—people who want to reduce the amount of meat they eat for ethical or environmental reasons, but don’t want to give it up entirely.
The budding industry has progressed a long way since a $330,000 burger was famously cooked on TV in 2013, driven by the idea that if it’s done right, meat could be produced with far lower greenhouse-gas emissions and zero animal suffering. But cost is still a hurdle: the high price of the growth factors required to develop the cells mean the price tags for pure cultured meat products are still measured in hundreds of dollars per pound, far too expensive to compete with regular meat. So Just’s first chicken products will be chicken “bites” that use cultured chicken cells mixed with plant protein—although Tetrick wouldn’t say in what proportion. “Chicken nuggets are already blended—this one wont be any different,” he says. The bites will be labeled as “cultured chicken” on the restaurant’s menu.
Singapore’s decision could kick-start the first wave of regulatory approvals around the world.
“We are hoping and expecting that the US, China, and the EU will pick up the gauntlet that Singapore just threw down,” says Bruce Friedrich, executive director of the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that works in meat alternatives. “Nothing is more important for the climate than a shift away from industrial animal agriculture.”
While Just has beaten them to the punch, many big firms are already working with regulators to get their own products to market. This is not something to be rushed, Friedrich says: “It is critical for cultivated meat companies to be extra careful and to go beyond consumer expectation in ensuring consumer comfort with their products.”
Memphis Meats, which counts Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and traditional meat manufacturer Tyson Foods among its many investors, has teamed up with a number of other firms, including Just and cultured-seafood makers BlueNalu and Finless Foods, to form a lobbying group that is working with US regulators to get their products approved.
The way that might actually happen was only hammered out relatively recently. In March 2019, it was announced that the FDA would regulate the early stages of the cultured-meat process, including cell banks and cell growth. The US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service will then take over at the cell harvesting stage and will inspect production facilities and approve labels used on cultured-meat products. In Europe, companies must apply for authorization and meet the European Union’s regulation on novel foods. The process is likely to take at least 18 months, and no cultured-meat company has yet applied.
Both Singapore and Israel have actively made themselves welcoming to startups in plant and cultured meat, Freidrich says. Governments should follow their lead and start treating this like initiatives in renewable energy and global health, he says.
“We need a space-race-type commitment toward making meat from plants or growing it from cells,” he says. “We need a Manhattan Project focused on remaking meat.”