Lab-grown meat is not new, but the technology is moving along at a rapid pace. This week, Memphis Meats — one of two major technology companies that have created burger patties out of stem cells — hatched a plan to create lab-grown chicken and duck.
At a tasting, which took place yesterday, Memphis Meats served lab-grown chicken strips that were battered and fried, as well as lab-grown duck a l’orange. Early tasters of the product swear it tastes just like chicken, according to a Wall Street Journal report.
So how is this chicken made? Memphis Meats’ in-house senior scientist Eric Schulze explained the process to Eater in broad strokes. “We start by harvesting sells from high-quality, living chickens that might otherwise go into conventional meat,” he says. “The chickens are not killed in the process. We look for cells that have potential to renew, put them in environment where they can grow and feed them water and nutrients — vitamins, minerals, proteins, sugars — and let them grow.” It takes between four and six weeks for harvested cells to grow into a fleshed-out chicken tender. That’s comparable to the amount of time a chick takes to reach adulthood in today’s modern poultry industry.
Back in 2015, the San Francisco Bay Area-based company crowdfunded its mission to grow “clean meat.” Since then, it’s introduced a lab-grown meatball and plans to grow Thanksgiving turkey in a lab. The company has raised a total of $3 million, and plans to continue conversations with investors in the coming months. If all goes according to plan, Memphis Meats’ lab-grown poultry and beef will be available in supermarkets by 2021.
Both Memphis Meats and Mosa Meat — which is based in the Netherlands and counts Google co-founder Sergey Brin among its investors — have produced lab-grown burger-like meat patties from bovine cells. Memphis says they are the first to grow poultry cells in a lab.
The technology company notes in a release that chicken is the most popular protein in the U.S.; each American eats an average of 90 pounds per person per year. Given the costs (feed, breeding, and slaughter), environmental effects, ethical concerns, and nutritional impact (chiefly, antibiotic use) of poultry production, lab-grown meat certainly sounds like a novel solution.
If only it were that easy. Cost is a potential pitfall: The most recent reports say Mosa Meat’s lab-grown beef products would cost under $12 per patty, significantly down from a 2013 estimate of $325,000 per burger. Memphis Meats’ chicken is a long way off from that: The company estimates the cost of one pound of lab-grown chicken meat to be about $9,000. “We feel our challenges [related to price] are similar to those of other technology products,” Steve Myrick, Memphis Meats’ VP of business development says. “By reducing input costs and doing it on a much larger scale we’ll be able to get our prices down.” As a point of comparison, Americans currently pay about $3.22 per pound for boneless skinless chicken breasts.
Assuming consumers will be willing to pay a bit of a premium for environmentally-friendly, Silicon Valley-approved chicken, there are other concerns, including the psychological hump American diners might need to overcome before they’re comfortable eating lab-grown meat. “We’ve found that our testers become big advocates pretty quickly,” Myrick says. “We feel that for most consumers, once they learn about conventional meat processing, it will become a relatively understandable and compelling offering for them.”
Another challenge that Memphis Meats may face — but didn’t want to comment on directly — is any potential USDA or FDA approval or regulation for a product that has never before been available to consumers. Schulze did say the company believes the country’s “current regulatory system is more than adequate for products such as [Memphis Meats],” and that they “welcome any regulatory pathway that helps foster approval to sending this to market.”