The Coming Obsolescence of Animal Meat

A collage of chicken nuggets
SAN FRANCISCO—The thought I had when the $100 chicken nugget hit my expectant tongue was the one cartoon villains have when they entrap a foreign critter and roast him over a spit: It tastes like chicken.That’s because it was chicken—albeit chicken that had never laid an egg, sprouted a feather, or been swept through an electrified-water bath for slaughter. This chicken began life as a primordial mush in a bioreactor whose dimensions and brand I’m not allowed to describe to you, for intellectual-property reasons. Before that, it was a collection of cells swirling calmly in a red-hued, nutrient-rich “media,” with a glass flask for an eggshell. The chicken is definitely real, and technically animal flesh, but it left the world as it entered it—a mass of meat, ready for human consumption, with no brain or wings or feet.

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.)

“Every big brewery has a little room in the back which is clean, and has people in white lab coats, and they’re not ‘lab-grown’ beer,” argues Michael Selden, the co-founder of a cell-based-fish start-up, Finless Foods. “But we’re for some reason lab-grown fish, even though it really is the exact same thing.”Regardless of what you call it, Just and others say it’s coming. Just, which was called Hampton Creek until last year, started out making vegan “eggs” and mayonnaise, then revealed in 2017 that it had also been working on cultured meat. The nugget was served to me to demonstrate that Just isn’t vaporware, in Silicon Valley parlance, or in this case, vapor-poultry. There’s a there there, and it’s edible.

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…

F. Kaskais Web Guru



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