SCIENCE
03/24/2017 12:39 pm ET | Updated Mar 26, 2017

No Chickens Were Harmed In The Making Of This Fried Chicken

In "historic" breakthrough for the burgeoning cultured meat industry, California company unveils world's first lab-grown poultry.

Ji Sub Jeong/The Huffington Post

The taste testers munched thoughtfully on the chicken tenders. “Delicious,” they said, if only a little spongier than usual. Most agreed they would eat it again.

“It tastes like chicken,” one diner marvelled.

“I went back for seconds,” said another.

The chicken the group had devoured was unlike anything they’d ever eaten. It was chicken, alright, but chicken that had never once breathed, or clucked, or been slaughtered. 

The chicken tenders were produced by Memphis Meats, a Silicon Valley-based food tech company that says it’s successfully developed the world’s first ever “clean” chicken and duck meat through cellular agriculture — in other words, they were grown in a lab. 

Announcing the achievement last week, the company called it “an unprecedented milestone for the clean meat industry.”

A ‘Historic’ Breakthrough

The clean meat movement, though nascent, is not entirely new. Clean beef has been produced before — the first hamburger made from lab-grown beef was consumed in London in 2013 — but poultry had remained a challenge.

In November, researchers at North Carolina State University said they’d successfully grown a “nugget” of turkey meat about the size of a finger tip in their lab, but the team has yet to announce the development of anything more substantial.

Memphis Meats has now raised the bar with their lab-grown chicken and “slaughter-free” duck, which was served à l’Orange last week to the group of taste testers.

“This is a historic moment,” Uma Valeti, co-founder and CEO of Memphis Meats, said of the company’s poultry breakthrough in a statement. “We really believe this is a significant technological leap for humanity, and an incredible business opportunity — to transform a giant global industry while contributing to solving some of the most urgent sustainability issues of our time.” 

Chicken is the most consumed meat in the United States. In 2016, Americans gobbled up almost as much chicken as beef and pork combined, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Worldwide, more than 60 billion chickens are raised for meat annually.

Duck, on the other hand, is enormously popular in China, home to 1.3 billion people. Some 2.7 million metric tons of duck meat are consumed there every year, reports the Wall Street Journal. 

“Chicken and duck are at the center of the table in so many cultures around the world, but the way conventional poultry is raised creates huge problems for the environment, animal welfare, and human health,” said Valeti. “It is also inefficient. We aim to produce meat in a better way, so that it is delicious, affordable and sustainable.”

Memphis Meats
Memphis Meats' duck à l’Orange

The Meat Of The Matter

Like Valeti, other clean meat advocates believe that lab-grown animal products could revolutionize the way we eat, increasing food security and making meat safer, greener and perhaps even healthier.

They point to the health and safety issues that have plagued the conventional meat industry, particularly the large-scale factory farms where the majority of farm animals are now reared. Animal cruelty in these industrial facilities is one frequently-cited concern, as are health issues like antibiotic resistance. Cultured meat, advocates say, would share none of these problems, and could in fact be even healthier than their conventional counterparts.

As Mark Post, the Dutch scientist behind the 2013 cultured hamburger patty, explained, lab-grown meat could be engineered to include certain nutrients like vitamins, while omitting “things we might not want in there” — like heme iron, which is found in beef and pork and has been linked to some cancers, and saturated fat.

Then, there’s climate change and overpopulation, two of the most pressing global issues of this century. According to Post, a physiology professor at Maastricht University in The Netherlands, the clean meat industry could be one solution in tackling these twin crises. 

“Livestock is currently responsible for about 15 to 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions,” he told The Huffington Post in a November interview.

And that number is on the rise.

Beef has a particularly large carbon footprint, as cows, through their farts and belches, produce a significant amount of methane — a greenhouse gas that is significantly more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Other livestock like chicken and pigs also produce methane through their manure, but in smaller amounts. Overall, livestock is the largest source of methane emissions worldwide, contributing over 35 percent of total emissions. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, emissions from enteric fermentation — which is the process through which methane is produced by livestock during digestion — increased 11 percent between 2001 and 2011.

With scientists warning of the need to limit global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius this century, Post said replacing conventional meat with clean meat could potentially go a long way in helping us reach this goal. “Obviously, if you don’t use actual cows to produce beef, you won’t produce the methane,” he said.

The full environmental impacts of clean meat production have yet to be rigorously researched, but the preliminary data is promising. Memphis Meats’ Valeti said last week that emissions from the cultured meat industry could be less than half that of conventional meat. A 2011 study was even more confident, concluding that clean meat could potentially be produced with up to 96 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions, 99 percent lower land use and 96 percent lower water use than the conventional meat industry.

This deficit will be particularly important as global demand for meat increases, said Post. “Demand is going to go up and up in the next 30 years,” he said. “And we’re no longer going to able to sustain it.”

According to the FAO, the world’s population is expected to increase to 9.6 billion people by 2050, and global consumption of meat is expected to balloon by 73 percent in that time.

“In terms of food security, we’re already using 70 percent of all our arable land for livestock reproduction,” said Post, a beef-lover himself. “So either we all become vegetarian or we eat a lot less meat, but if we want to let people do their thing and eat what they want, we’re going to have to produce meat in a way that’s a lot less resource-intensive.” 

How To Grow A Hamburger 

Though it sounds like science fiction, Post said growing meat in a lab is “actually pretty simple,” and uses many of the same tissue engineering techniques that have been used for decades in human regenerative medicine. 

Here are the basics: first, small samples of muscle tissue are taken from a live animal in what’s been called a “painless procedure. From there, stem cells — “building block” cells with unique regenerative abilities — are harvested and left to culture in a special solution meant to feed the cells and promote growth.

As the above Eater video explains, a single muscle stem cell can multiply into a trillion muscle cells in the right medium. These cells then merge together and form inch-long muscle fibers, which Post said are pretty much “exactly the same tissue” as what’s found in the meat we eat. These fibers are then layered together to create a product like a hamburger patty, which Post said takes about 10,000 muscle fibers — and about 8 to 9 weeks — to create.

That production rate is pretty much fixed, said Post, as it’s based on the natural replication cycle of the stem cells. “You don’t want to mess with that,” he said.

Post noted, however, that though two months may seem like a long time to culture a single hamburger patty, “it would take the same amount of time to create one hamburger or 100,000; it all just depends on the capacity you have to cultivate the cells.”

And therein, say experts, lies the greatest difficulty facing the clean meat industry: scale.

The technology is basically there, but “the biggest challenge is to get [cultured meat] produced on a mass scale and to get the price down,” Shaked Regev, chairman of the Modern Agriculture Foundation, a clean meat research group, told HuffPost last year.

For now, almost every critical step of the meat culturing process remains expensive — from obtaining the starter stem cells to the culture medium, to the large bioreactors that scientists say will be needed to carry out culturing at an industrial level.

Because of this, the cultured meat products that have been produced so far have come with exorbitant price tags. Post’s single beef patty cost $330,000 to produce in 2013. Three years later, Memphis Meats introduced its first-ever cultured meatball, which cost $18,000 per pound.

And the chicken tenders they unveiled last week? A pound of it would set you back a finger-lickin’ $9,000.

According to Erin Kim, communications director at New Harvest, another research institute dedicated to cultured meat, a lack of funding is currently the main obstacle to scaling up production. 

“In the U.S., funding for the crucial scientific research in academia that leads to applied innovation in companies has already been in steady decline for decades. And for completely novel areas of science like this, it poses a whole new challenge,” she said. “You have to convince people of the value of this work and because it’s so new, you don’t have a lot of hard data to point to as so much of it is speculative at this point.”

All it’ll take is one “major breakthrough” in one part of the production process for a “game-changing” effect on the science, Kim added. “There are people out there who have the expertise [to make these breakthroughs happen], they just don’t have the funding right now to do it.”

But as the clean meat industry garners more attention globally, support is burgeoning — including from an unlikely source.

As the Wall Street Journal pointed out, big players in the conventional meat industry have started to show a keen interest in this new method of meat production. The most prominent example is Tyson Foods, the largest meat-processing company in the world, which launched a venture-capital fund in December to invest in high-tech products and research, including “meat grown from self-reproducing animal cells.” Tyson also bought a 5 percent stake in Beyond Meat, an alternative protein company, last year. 

Kim said the clean meat industry welcomes the support from its conventional rival.

“If we want cultured meat to be palatable to the general population, then who better to get it into the supply chain than [the big meat companies]? she said, adding that it was analogous to Big Oil firms “looking into renewable energy.”

“Everyone knows that oil is running out, so these companies know that if they want to stay in business in the long term, they have to look into a more sustainable source. I could see the same thing happening with meat producers. Demand [for meat] is growing and current methods couldn’t supply that need even if we wanted them to,” Kim said.

Mark Post
Mark Post poses with the world's first lab-grown beef patty in 2013. 

Schmeat Me In The Future 

As the needle swings in their favor, many clean meat companies are working furiously to be the first to bring their products to market. 

There are several working on the production of cultured beef and poultry, at least one focused on clean pork and others that are developing other animal products like eggs, milk and even leather.

Memphis Meats told HuffPost this week that they are hoping to commercialize their cultured chicken and duck products by 2021. 

“We are confident that we will be able to significantly reduce the cost of production,” David Kay, a business analyst at the company, said in an email. “We’ve already reduced the cost of production by more than 100-fold since we started our research. And while we might initially enter the market at a slight price premium, as we scale-up we are confident we will be able to produce meat at a price that is cost competitive with ― and ultimately more affordable than ― conventionally-produced meat.”

Scientist Mark Post said commercial cultured meat is, within a doubt, in our near future.

Demand for it will “eventually surpass livestock meat consumption,” he said, and even eventually “eradicate livestock meat consumption at some point.”

“It’ll need to sink in for consumers ... but given all the moral and economic and environmental benefits, I cannot see a future where [clean meat] coexists with an inferior product,” he said. “Ask yourself: if 10 years from now, you see cultured meat products in the supermarket and the price is the same and it’s exactly the same in every way except it has no animal welfare issues or environmental issues, what are you going to do?” “

“Are you going to allow yourself to choose the product that is gnawing at your conscience?” 

 

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Dominique Mosbergen is a reporter at The Huffington Post covering climate change, extreme weather and extinction. Send tips or feedback to dominique.mosbergen@huffingtonpost.com or follow her on Twitter

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