I haven’t ordered meat at a restaurant in almost two decades, since I became a vegetarian in high school (and later, a vegan). But last week I found myself scarfing down two chicken skewers. My ethical and environmental concerns around meat production hadn’t changed, but the chicken on my plate certainly had: It was grown directly from animal cells, with no live animal — and no animal slaughter — required.
The chicken in question was made by GOOD Meat — a division of the San Francisco Bay Area alternative protein startup Eat Just — and the dinner marked a major milestone for the company: It was one of the very first times that so-called cell-cultivated meat had been served at a restaurant in the US.
Last month, after years of R&D and hundreds of millions of dollars in VC funding, GOOD Meat and competitor UPSIDE Foods received regulatory approval to sell their slaughter-free chicken. (The meat is made by placing animal cells in large stainless steel tanks and feeding them sugars, amino acids, salts, vitamins, minerals, and other ingredients for several weeks until they develop into fat and muscle tissue.)
Despite the historic nature of the dinner, which was provided by Eat Just, there was little pomp and circumstance — just myself, a few fellow food and farming journalists, and two PR reps at a table in the middle of China Chilcano, a Peruvian-Chinese-Japanese fusion restaurant in Washington, DC, owned by chef and humanitarian José Andrés.
The chicken, which was made up of 60 to 70 percent animal cells (the rest of it is plant-based — primarily wheat, soy, and oil), had been marinated in an anticucho sauce and was served with potatoes and chimichurri.
Close, but not quite chicken
To use the well-worn phrase, the slaughter-free chicken did taste like ... chicken. It left behind a chickeny smell and a thin film of meaty oil in my mouth that I hadn’t experienced since I last ate meat, but was still familiar enough to be unmistakable. The anticucho sauce gave it a nice smoky flavor, and the exterior had a subtle crunch to it. I thought the texture could use some improvement — it seemed a little soft — but I haven’t had chicken in almost 20 years, so maybe I’m not the best judge.
If you want to give it a try yourself, the restaurant is opening up reservations on July 25, with service beginning on July 31. But it’ll be tough to get a spot. For one, the restaurant said it’s already received a flood of inquiries. But more importantly, it only has enough supply to serve eight guests a 3.5-ounce serving of cell-cultivated chicken per week, as part of an extensive tasting menu at $70 per person.
Bar Crenn, an upscale restaurant in San Francisco run by three-Michelin-star chef Dominique Crenn, opened up reservations on Thursday and will begin serving cell-cultivated chicken from UPSIDE Foods on August 4. The six-course meal will cost $150 per person, with a 1-ounce serving of chicken made of 99 percent animal cells, and will only be available on the first weekend of each month with a capacity of 16 guests per month.
The stamp of approval from famed chefs like Crenn and Andrés should help startups get buy-in from the culinary world, and federal approval underscores that cell-cultivated meat is perfectly safe to eat. But the companies’ tiny supply and high prices — which still aren’t enough to prevent them from initially selling their chicken at a loss — highlight the immense challenges the whole sector faces in moving from a novelty food product to a commodity that can displace factory-farmed meat.
Slaughter-free meat has come a long way — and has a longer way to go
When I first learned about cell-cultivated meat, George W. Bush was still in the White House, and there was no ecosystem of scientists, investors, and advocates cheerleading the technology as the future of food. There was just one tiny nonprofit dedicated to the issue, New Harvest, and there was the animal-rights group PETA, which offered a $1 million prize to anyone who could produce cell-cultivated meat at a price point comparable to conventional meat.
PETA’s stunt was clever, as it generated discussion around the need to innovate our way out of our meat-heavy food system and all the environmental, animal welfare, and public health problems that stem from it. But the organization’s cash prize, and the high bar to win it, is now laughable. From 2016 to 2022, investors put nearly $3 billion into over 150 cell-cultivated meat startups around the world — yet none are anywhere close to making it affordable.
The challenges are both scientific and economic. Startups will need to figure out how to grow their cells faster, at higher densities, and with more affordable ingredients; ensure their large batches of meat are protected from bacterial contamination; and quickly build out massive and expensive production facilities.
To save on costs and scale up faster than their competitors, a handful of startups are making “hybrid” meats, an emerging trend I reported on in detail late last year. Hybrid products are made primarily from plant-based ingredients, like a Beyond or Impossible burger, but with a small amount of animal cells to make them taste meatier. It’s a promising, incremental approach, but some in the sector argue that for the industry to reach its goal of displacing factory-farmed meat, it’ll need to make meat that is primarily made from animal cells. And funding from venture capital won’t suffice; it’s going to need significant government money to get there.
The clean energy analogy is often invoked in this space: Globally, direct investments, research grants, low-interest loans, and other spending from governments have been critical in scaling up renewable forms of energy and electric vehicles. Just since 2020, governments around the world have chipped in $1.2 trillion through various means into clean energy development. By comparison, since 2020, governments have invested just $1 billion into alternative protein sources (mostly plant-based meat). Energy production deserves the larger support, given that it accounts for over one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, but conventional meat and dairy production is still responsible for around 15 percent of global emissions.
The conversation around meat’s environmental footprint is far behind the conversation around fossil fuels, but that could change in the coming decades. The transition to clean energy is moving fast, but little is being done to curb agricultural emissions — so little that Boston Consulting Group estimates that by 2050, if current trends continue, what Americans eat will be the country’s leading source of greenhouse gas emissions. Maybe, by then — more than 40 years after PETA’s cash prize offering — cell-cultivated meat will be on every restaurant menu. But it could be too late.