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Sustainable Energy

Say Hello to Finger-Lickin’ Lab-Grown Chicken

The first animal-free chicken strips are here—but they’ll cost you $9,000 per pound.

Fried chicken will never be guilt-free. But you may soon be able to remove at least part of the remorse the next time you chow down—because it might not have required a single bird to be harmed.

Memphis Meats is one of a cadre of startups racing to create meat that doesn’t involve killing any animals. The firm's approach to what it calls “clean meat” is to culture animal cells in the lab, feed them nutrients until they grow into pieces large enough to cook and eat. The company has already grown beef (as have others). Last year, it made a meatball.

Now, though, Memphis Meats has turned its attentions to poultry. The outfit has announced that it’s now made what it claims to be the first animal-free, lab-grown pieces of chicken and duck. The resulting chunks of alterna-flesh have so far been crafted into two dishes: a coated and fried chicken strip, and a plateful of duck à l’orange.

If companies like Memphis Meats can successfully grow their wares at scale, meat-eaters could satisfy their desire for animal-flavored proteins without bumping into the issues of animal cruelty associated with our carnivorous lifestyles. Given the right conditions, a few cells could turn into billions of chicken strips.

Still, there’s an obvious question to be asked here: How the hell does this stuff taste? The Wall Street Journal spoke to someone who tried the chicken, who reported that it was “spongier than a whole chicken breast” but added that it “nearly nailed the flavor of the traditional variety” and was worth eating again, which is probably the most important measure of success.

So, will KFC be frying up finger-lickin’ lab-grown chicken any time soon? Unlikely, for several reasons. For one thing, lab-grown meat is a long way from being mass-produced, so scale remains an issue. But the most problematic from the consumer perspective is cost. Memphis Meats reckons that it can produce a pound of its animal-free chicken for $9,000. That’s less than half what its beef cost just over a year ago, but it’s clearly way more than even the most inquisitive and guilt-wracked of foodies would spend on ingredients.

As we reported last Thanksgiving, though, the price will fall over time. In fact, Paul Mozdziak, a North Carolina State University professor in the business of making lab-grown turkey, pointed out that it could theoretically prove more economical than rearing animals, because there’s no extraneous bone or feather or brain to grow—all the energy and nutrients could go into producing pure meat.

Memphis Meats agrees. It says that it should be able to drive the cost down fast enough to put its products up for sale to a hungry public some time in 2021. If that happens, the only reason to feel guilty about crushing some fried chicken strips will be the calories.

(Read more: Wall Street Journal, “Meet the Test-Tube Turkey That Costs $34,000,” “If the World Gives Up Meat, We Can Still Have Burgers,” “The Problem With Fake Meat”)

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