The Department of Agriculture on Wednesday approved the production and sale of lab-grown meat for the first time, paving the way for two California companies to sell chicken produced from animal cells.
It will likely be years before shoppers can buy lab-produced meats in supermarkets. But the government’s decision will eventually allow the sale of lab-produced meat across state lines after passing federal inspections.
The decision is a milestone for companies that produce cell-grown meat, along with consumers seeking alternatives to chickens raised and slaughtered in a factory farm.
Alternative protein advocates, along with the companies seeking federal approval – Upside Foods and Good Meat – celebrated the news as critical to the meat industry and the wider food system at a time of growing concern about the environmental impact of meat production and the treatment of animals .
“This approval will fundamentally change the way meat gets to our table,” said Dr. Uma Valeti, the CEO and founder of Upside Foods, said in a statement. “It’s a giant step towards a more sustainable future – one where choice and life are preserved.”
The decision will make the United States the second country in the world, after Singapore, to allow the production and sale of lab-grown meat. Bruce Friedrich, the president of the Good Food Institute, a non-profit organization focused on cell and plant-based meats, said US approval was a critical step for the industry, adding that “the world is watching the US approval system for food security, and now many governments will follow.”
Proponents of cultured meat say that the product produces better results for the environment, food safety and animal welfare. But skeptics are wary of scientific and safety risks, saying the purported environmental benefits are unproven. Difficulties remain on how to increase the product for mass consumption.
About 100 companies worldwide, including dozens in the United States, focus on the production of cultured meat, according to Mr. Friedrich. According to market research firm Grand View Research, the industry was estimated to be worth about $247 million by 2022 and could grow to $25 billion by 2030, the consulting firm McKinsey & Company predicted.
Lab-grown meat starts with cells from an animal. Those cells then receive water and salt and nutrients such as amino acids, vitamins and minerals. The cells then multiply in large tanks called cultivators or bioreactors. When harvested, the product is essentially chopped, which is then formed into patties, sausages or fillets. The meat contains no bones, feathers, beaks or hooves and does not need to be slaughtered.
Upside Foods and Good Meat declined to comment on their current production capacity, but Dr. Valeti said last year that the company will eventually grow to “tens of millions of pounds of product.”
That’s chicken feed compared to the more than 300 million tons of meat consumed around the world — a number that’s only expected to grow.
Both companies will begin selling chicken to American consumers through partner restaurants: Upside Foods at Bar Crenn in San Francisco and Good Meat at an undisclosed location operated by Chef José Andrés in Washington. The model enables both consumer education and feedback, spokespersons for the companies said.
After the first trial, both companies are also focusing on scaling up production and expanding to other types of meat. (Beef, with its higher fat content and more complex flavor, is harder to replicate.)
Still, questions remain about the regulatory framework surrounding cultured meat and consumer attitudes towards the products.
Many ranchers and farming groups have cried over calling the lab-grown variety “meat” and have lobbied lawmakers to protect the word. The Food Safety and Inspection Service, the Department of Agriculture’s agency charged with inspecting conditions in processing facilities, continues to make regulations on how to label food products derived from animal cells. For now, the two California companies will call their products “cell-raised chicken,” a label the agency approved last week.
Aside from semantic strife and consumer opinion, Mr. Friedrich that when they eventually hit supermarket shelves, the cultured meat products will be expensive compared to conventional sausages and patties – similar to how renewable energy was initially more expensive than oil and gas.
Still, he is confident that “cultured meat will sell itself”.