Life Style

Lab-grown chicken promises guilt-free meat, but the hurdles are steep

Cell-cultured chicken on the grill at the Good Meat development kitchen in Alameda, Calif. (Carolyn Fong for The Washington Post)

SAN FRANCISCO — The chicken recently introduced at two U.S. restaurants — one in California, the other in Washington, D.C. — was not raised in a crowded barn or allowed to roam on a pasture. The meat did not come from birds packed into an 18-wheeler and trucked to a nondescript plant where they were slaughtered, cleaned and dissembled into the usual cuts.

This chicken was grown in sterile, laboratory-like facilities by Good Meat and Upside Foods, a pair of Bay Area food technology companies that have been toiling for years to reach this moment. Their chicken started as cells, maybe taken as part of a biopsy from a living bird. The cells were cultivated in ever-larger vessels, or maybe just plastic two-liter flasks, until enough tissue could be harvested and eventually processed into dishes at these full-service restaurants, where a select few diners are paying handsomely for the privilege to be among the first to taste chicken grown without the blood and guts of animal slaughter.

The chicken goes by a number of names — lab-grown meat, cell-cultivated meat, clean meat and, in certain agricultural circles, Franken-meat — but whatever label it adopts, the meat grown in sterile plants has also been billed as a potential savior to the troubles that plague our food system.

Proponents say cell-cultivated chicken, beef and the like could dramatically cut back the amount of land and water that goes into producing the meat that will feed a growing population along with its growing appetite for animal proteins. Cultivated meat could eliminate the inhumane treatment of animals raised for food, whose short lives are often hidden behind walls where, in some states, it is a crime for reporters or activists to access the facilities under false pretenses. They could help prevent the spread of zoonotic diseases. They could even reduce the 7.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere every year by the livestock industry, representing 14.5 percent of all human-related greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet, to date, the two companies approved in the United States to sell cultivated meat can grow only hundreds of thousands of pounds per year, a microscopic fraction of the hundreds of millions of metric tons of meat produced annually around the world. In the near future, dozens of other tech companies hope to join Good Meat and Upside, but even if they do, critics and industry executives say it’s no sure bet that cell-cultured meat can ever scale up and compete, in quantity or price, with traditional animal agriculture.

Most everyone will tell you there are still huge obstacles to overcome — financial ones, scientific ones, even public resistance to the product — before most people will ever get a taste of meat that comes from bioreactors, not from an animal with legs, lungs, a heart and a brain.

“My want is sometime, hopefully before I die, where the majority of meat that is produced in a given day is cultivated, not slaughtered,” said Josh Tetrick, co-founder and chief executive of Eat Just, which includes the cell-cultivated division Good Meat. “I think that is a massive challenge. I think it’s highly uncertain. I think that it requires tens of millions of dollars in capital. It will require innovative new approaches to production that we and other companies haven’t thought of yet.”

The scarcity — and preciousness — of cell-cultured meat is underscored at Bar Crenn in San Francisco’s Cow Hollow neighborhood, where once a month chef Dominique Crenn features an approximately one-ounce portion of Upside chicken as part of her six-course, $150 tasting menu. In August, Crenn and her team coated the cultivated chicken in a tempura batter mixed with recado negro, a potent, charred chile-pepper paste from Mexico. Paired with a burnt chile aioli, the chicken rested in a small bowl nestled inside a larger bowl, which bubbled over with dry-ice fog, conjuring up images of mad scientists and Hollywood monster movies.

It was the first time in five years that Crenn, the three-star Michelin chef, had served meat other than fish. She had stopped serving meat after she “saw what factory farming was doing to our planet,” Crenn wrote on a note card that greeted every diner. “Yes, the flavor is important, but the food also has to stand for something.”

The Upside bird at Bar Crenn is composed of 99 percent chicken cells: It’s a dense, meaty nugget that, according to a recent Wired story, isn’t even grown in traditional suspension-cell bioreactors, but in single-use plastic flasks called roller bottles, an apparently expensive and wasteful process. However it’s produced, the resulting chicken is undeniable: It tastes like the kind of bird that once was common in America, before the poultry industry sacrificed flavor for rapid growth. It may be the most chicken-y chicken I’ve tasted in a long time.

This may explain chef de cuisine Nick Vollono’s unusual recommendation at Bar Crenn. “We do provide a fork and a knife,” he said to the six diners who had signed up for the experience. “But we really want everyone to pick up the chicken, feel it and look at it.”

Vollono was talking to us as if we were tasting chicken for the first time, divorced from years of devouring rotisserie birds, McDonald’s McNuggets and countless fried chicken sandwiches.

In a spacious, virtually spotless kitchen at Good Meat’s headquarters in Alameda, Calif., Nate Park has plated a small portion of what he calls the V-5 prototype, or Version 5, a product that has yet to hit the market. Only about 50 or so people have sampled V-5, which is about 75 percent cultivated chicken cells, says Park, a former chef who is now the director of product development at Eat Just. Park’s knife slices through the meat, clean and easy, releasing aromas into the kitchen that activate my salivary glands.

Once sliced, the chicken’s interior does a remarkable impression of breast meat, down to the pale striations, although Park says the V-5 bird is more of a hybrid cut. This is the thing about cultivated meat: Its creators don’t always know what they have once the product is pulled from bioreactors and processed.

“The weird part of this is: When you’re not growing the bones and the beaks and the feathers and everything else, what is it? What is that composition?” Park said. “When it comes off the machine, as chefs, we take a lot of assessments. . . . I would say that Version 4 that you had felt more like a chicken thigh, but I feel like [V-5] rotates somewhere between a thigh and a breast.”

Version 4 is available at China Chilcano, chef and humanitarian José Andrés’s restaurant in the Penn Quarter neighborhood of Washington. The chicken is limited to six portions every Tuesday, when the meat is part of a $70 Peruvian tasting menu. Due to supply shortages, China Chilcano is not accepting reservations for the meal, but in July, I attended a preview dinner: The main attraction was the chicken, which had been cut into cubes, marinated and skewered, a chef-driven take on an anticucho, a traditional Peruvian street food. Version 4 contains about 60 to 70 percent chicken cells, so the flavor compares favorably to the bird you already know, but the texture is off. The chew is closer to firm tofu or a portobello mushroom, or some cross of both.

No one knows yet what approach to cell-cultivated meat will ultimately resonate with consumers, which probably explains why Upside and Good Meat are pursuing different paths.

Good Meat wants to focus on products that contain more animal cells than plant-based filler. As Park explained in his Alameda kitchen, the experience of eating cell-cultivated chicken crosses an invisible line once the product contains at least 50 percent animal cells. Your palate starts to recognize the product as chicken, he says. “Once you hit 60 or 70 percent, it becomes chicken,” Park added. “It starts to hit that point of, like, ‘Okay, the experience now makes sense to me.’”

To Tetrick, consumers eager to try cell-cultivated meat — a small group, based on polling this year — will want to taste something that is fundamentally meat, even if that means Eat Just will have to spend more time, research and money to create products that satisfy this craving.

“I just think people are more likely to eat something that is actually meat than something that is plant-based meat,” Tetrick says.

Yet, over at the demonstration kitchen at Upside’s Engineering, Production, and Innovation Center, or EPIC for short, founder Uma Valeti and his teams are developing products in which the chicken cell count drops below the 50 percent mark. Daniel Davila, a senior food scientist, stands behind a gas stove and serves up three such items, none of which have been approved yet by government regulators.

The first is a breakfast sausage (45 percent chicken cells), which Davila has tucked into an English muffin with egg and cheese. It’s followed by a plate of pot stickers, whose filling is composed of 47 percent chicken cells. The third is breaded chicken patty, like the kind you’d find in the frozen foods section of the supermarket. With 35 percent chicken cells, the patty is the runt of the litter. To give these products texture, taste and mouthfeel, Upside has added soy protein, wheat protein, fat, seasonings and more.

If, for now, the Upside breakfast sausage is better than its chicken patty at imitating products on the market, Valeti is quick to point out that flavor is paramount with everything the company develops, no matter the product’s cell count. Yet Valeti appears to be calculating more than bliss points with these items. He’s also calculating the fastest way to reach the largest number of consumers, beyond those who can afford a multicourse tasting menu at Bar Crenn. The calculation is straightforward with such a limited supply of cultivated meat: The fewer cells a product has, the lower its cost. And the more people who can afford it.

Its cultivated meat supply may be even more limited than Upside lets on, especially with the whole-cuts of chicken, such as the tiny portions served at Bar Crenn. When I visited the company’s facilities, Valeti talked only about bioreactors, or cultivators as he calls them, even though Upside, according to the Wired article, does not have approval yet for products made in suspension-cell bioreactors. (The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not responded to a Washington Post inquiry on what methods the agency has reviewed.) The chief executive made no mention of roller bottles, which apparently produce only a few grams of meat per bottle, a method that would not lend itself to large-scale production.

Upside has not responded to questions about the Wired story and its implications for the company’s future.

But even if all the pieces fall into place for Upside’s plant-supplemented products — should the company get all the approvals it needs — the company doesn’t see itself competing with conventional chicken. These will be premium products, he says, priced “like you’d expect for an organic product.”

This week, Upside announced it will open a large-scale, 187,000-square-foot facility in the Chicago area. Expected to debut in 2025, the plant will produce millions of pounds of cultivated ground-meat products per year, the company says in a release, with “the potential to expand to over 30 million pounds.” The plant will be in Glenview, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, where the modern American meat industry was born in the 19th century by a handful of industrialists whose pursuit of cheap meat would come at the expense of the environment, the workers, the animals and human health.

Chicagoland’s role in U.S. meat production was not lost on Valeti. In the release, he singled out the region’s meatpacking history, minus its problematic effects, when talking about how excited he was that “the next chapter of our journey towards building a more sustainable, humane, and abundant future will be in Illinois.”

Whether Upside, Good Meat and other companies can fix the problems of industrial animal agriculture is an open question. For years, the cultivated-meat industry has been an object of great hope — and substantial doubt. It’s a tension that has played out between company executives who promise that the era of guilt-free meat is just around the corner and critics who say that the industry will never compete with large-scale animal agriculture.

The doubters don’t have as big a megaphone as the companies looking to upend the U.S. meat industry, but they have facts on their side.

Basic cell biology and bioreactor dynamics are among the issues that will limit the industry from scaling up, noted David Humbird in a techno-economic analysis that he spent two years preparing for Open Philanthropy. Joe Fassler, then a deputy editor at the Counter, a nonprofit that wrote investigative stories on America’s food systems before ceasing publication last year, synthesized much of Humbird’s research into his own deeply reported article on the challenges facing the cultivated-meat industry.

“Though Humbird lays out his case with an unprecedented level of technical detail, his argument can be boiled down simply: The cost of cultivation facilities will always be too burdensome, and the cost of growth media will always be too high, for the economics of cultured meat to make sense,” Fassler wrote. (Humbird declined an interview for this story, but said he has seen no developments in the industry to change his mind about its future.)

In layman’s terms, “growth media” is the food that makes cells grow, and it is, as the Good Food Institute notes, the “most important factor in cell culture technology.” Composed of amino acids, inorganic salts, sugars, vitamins, water and, traditionally, fetal bovine serum, growth media is the largest cost associated with cultivated meat production. It is also, apparently, not cheap or easy to develop media free of fetal bovine serum, a product that begins with the extraction of blood from the beating heart of a fetal calf whose mother is already headed for slaughter. According to the institute, the fetus could “consciously experience the event as painful.”

The chicken at both Bar Crenn and China Chilcano is cultivated with animal serum: The Good Meat chicken relies on very small amounts of fetal bovine serum in the production process, said spokesman Andrew Noyes, but it is “effectively washed out in the manufacturing process.” Upside doesn’t use FBS in its growth media, but small amounts of “adult animal serum,” Valeti told me.

But in their efforts to create cruelty-free products, both Good Meat and Upside are working toward cultured meat that’s grown without animal serum. The three plant-supplemented items I sampled at Upside were all grown that way, Valeti told me. Likewise, Good Meat hasn’t used fetal bovine serum in its research-and-development efforts for about three years, said Noyes. What’s more, he noted, Good Meat in January received “the world’s first regulatory approval” for serum-free media in Singapore, where regulators made history in 2020 by greenlighting the first public sale of cultivated meat. By the end of the year, Good Meat plans to file paperwork with the Food and Drug Administration for serum-free media.

Both Tetrick with Good Meat and Valeti with Upside say they need to lower the costs of their feed. Valeti wants to be under 50 cents per liter. Tetrick said costs need to come down to 10 cents or 20 cents per liter. Neither would say what they currently pay for feed.

“Without saying the exact amount, we’re over a dollar,” Tetrick said. “So we’ve got a ways to go.”

Indeed, the largest obstacle to scaling up the cell-cultivated meat industry, according to multiple people, is money.

The Upside plant in the Chicago area will cost more than $140 million to construct, according to spokeswoman Brooke Whitney. Good Meat has already announced plans to build a large-scale facility in an industrial area outside of Doha, Qatar, in partnership with Doha Venture Capital and the Qatar Free Zones Authority. Good Meat also has a “base design” for another large-scale facility, destination still unknown, Tetrick says.

Without the assistance of governments or quasi-governmental groups like Qatar Free Zones Authority, Good Meat figures it will need to raise more than $400 million to build just one facility to scale up production, Tetrick says.

The high costs are due, in part, to the kind of plant the industry likely needs: biopharmaceutical-grade facilities that are sterile enough to prevent contamination. Tetrick says flat-out that these kind of costs are not sustainable long-term, given the industry would reportedly need thousands of such plants to grab even 10 percent of the global meat market.

The risk — for companies and for investors — is that there is no track record for such facilities, no history of using 100,000-liter bioreactors, which could be hard to keep clean and even harder to grow cells in. “You can break ground on a lot of facilities before you prove anything, which means that a lot of money can be wasted,” said Ben Wurgaft, a writer and historian who has followed the cultivated meat industry for a decade. “These are substantial gambles.”

Complicating matters, multiple executives say, is the fact that some investors have apparently lost their appetite. “The industry is having a hard time. Interest rates are up,” said Michael Selden, chief executive and co-founder of Finless Foods, a Bay Area company that specializes in cell-cultured seafood. “Food tech has two big companies — Impossible and Beyond — and neither have performed the way that investors were anticipating, and that makes it hard for other entrepreneurs.”

The current state of affairs makes Wurgaft wonder if venture-backed start-ups are even the right model. He wonders if academic labs might have been a better avenue. Earlier this year, Wurgaft noted, a Bay Area cultivated-pork start-up closed down for a lack of funding, despite the fact it had a production plant that was 90 percent complete.

“My anxiety is that we may see a kind of cultured-meat crash in which a lot of companies fall by the wayside, and it may produce a general lack of confidence among investors, the general public and the protagonists of the story,” said Wurgaft, author of “Meat Planet.” “They may think that the technology is cursed, that it can never work. And that may not be true. It may not be the technology’s fault.”


A previous version of this article, relying on interviews with Upside Foods chief executive Uma Valeti, stated that the company’s cell-cultured chicken was being produced in large bioreactors. An investigation by Wired magazine, however, asserts that the chicken is being produced in much smaller flasks in a process that could be impossible to scale up. That assertion has been added to this article. Upside has not responded to requests for comment on the Wired investigation.

Source link

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button