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This meat was what most of the world calls “lab grown,” but what Just, the company that makes the nugget, and other Silicon Valley start-ups want me to call “cultured meat” or “cell-based” meat, or better yet, “clean meat.” The argument is that almost all the food we eat, at some point, crosses a laboratory, whether in the course of researching flavors or perfecting packaging. So it is not fair to single out this particular product as being associated with freaky science. (Yes, I raised the point that all meat is technically cell-based, too, and no, this did not persuade anyone at the start-ups.)
Just has been mired in turmoil in recent years, as board members resigned and former employees complained of shoddy science. (CEO Josh Tetrick calls the claims “blatantly wrong.”) Because of what the company said are regulatory hurdles, Just missed its goal of making a commercial sale of the chicken nuggets by the end of 2018. The Atlantic ran a somewhat unflattering profile of Tetrick in 2017, implying that the company is more style than substance.
Tetrick seemed eager to prove this magazine wrong. He told me he tries not to get too down about bad press. A couple of years ago, “we were pretty much just selling mayonnaise,” he said. But now the plant-based Just Egg, which was practically a prototype when the Atlantic article came out, is in grocery stores, and as of this week, you can order it at Bareburger and the mid-Atlantic chain Silver Diner.
Cultured chicken is, too, now on the horizon—that is, if people are willing to eat it. And if Just can ever make enough of it to feed them.
Tetrick is hawklike and southern, which, when combined with his conservational tendencies, lends him young–Al Gore energy. He’s nostalgic for chicken wings even though he’s vegan and does not eat them. When I visited Just a few weeks ago, he showed me a photo of wads of meat and fat in a bowl. They are chunks of Japanese beef that the company hopes to grow into a cultured version by scraping off samples within 24 hours of the animal’s demise. This product wasn’t ready for me to taste yet, but it’s important, in Tetrick’s view, to be a little bit aspirational. “If my team cannot see where we want to go, they’re never gonna go there,” he said…