With the recent announcement that the Food and Drug Administration and the United States Department of Agriculture have approved both UPSIDE Foods and GOOD lab-grown meat for sale in the United States, news articles and enthusiasts alike are buzzing with anticipation.
Soon, those of us in the US may have access to cultivated protein.
If you're anything like me, you may have been wondering for the past two years (since Singapore authorized the sale of GOOD cultivated chicken in December 2020), when you'll get a chance to try it.
And, most importantly: does it actually taste like chicken?
I recently got my answer.
I had the opportunity to visit Huber Butchery in Singapore, which until recently was the only country in the world that allowed the sale of cultivated meat; here, the food technology company Eat Just Inc. serves chicken from its cultivated meat division, GOOD Meat.
The restaurant bustled with more than just diners. A group of students from Singapore Management University (SMU) were on the scene, diligently conducting a consumer acceptance study. Simultaneously, a film crew from Italy sampled the product and interviewed patrons. Journalists from the German newspaper Die Zeit gathered feedback on the cultivated meat.
Even without the researchers and media crews, there was a palpable sense of importance in the air. The members of the GOOD Meat team, along with the staff from Huber Butchery, welcomed diners and followed up after their meals. Without undue hyperbole, the menu stated that the chicken sandwich I was about to order contained real meat derived from a small number of animal cells. It also highlighted, with genuine excitement, the environmental significance of the meal, stating that cultivated chicken utilizes less land and water and emits fewer greenhouse gases than conventional chicken.
Upon the arrival of my meal, I was struck by the rather ordinary appearance of the sandwich; you'd never know that the chicken it contained could be a game-changer — a taste of a future where lab-grown meat may become commonplace.
Okay, okay, but how does it taste?
I was nervous. I had worried that it wouldn't taste right, that the texture would be off, or that there would be a distinctly technological aspect to the flavor that would shatter all my hopeful wonderings.
But no. To my relief and delight, it tasted like chicken (see photo for the most excited I've ever been to eat a sandwich).
Because it is chicken.
I spent as much time eating the sandwich as dissecting it, pulling the chicken apart to examine the texture — much to my dining partner's chagrin (apologies to the Huber Butcher staff, I generally have better table manners). I found that the texture was slightly more reminiscent of turkey rather than chicken, with a somewhat chewier consistency.
Still, after exchanging thoughts with journalist Anant Agarwala from Die Zeit, we both arrived at the same conclusion: in a blind taste test, we wouldn't be able to discern any difference between the cultivated and conventional chicken.
The entire meal cost me 21.83 Singaporean dollars. As a San Francisco Bay Area resident, this wasn't shocking (if you're familiar with the area, you get it). While it is yet unclear where UPSIDE and GOOD will land in terms of price point for their upcoming launches at Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, (UPSIDE) and Jose Andres's restaurant, China Chilcano, in Washington DC (GOOD), it's not far-fetched to imagine it will be at or upwards of the cost in Singapore. Both restaurants are upscale, and this year, Atelier Crenn launched a guaranteed reservation and VIP program for patrons — costing $3,800 annually.
While the premium cost might not deter those eager to try the product (hello, it's me), it could be a hindrance when it comes to influencing folks beyond the crowd of food-tech enthusiasts and early adopters (me again). Those intrigued by, or even skeptical of, the concept of cultivated meat may balk at a price tag that proves to be prohibitively expensive — and certainly, the existing costs already make it inaccessible to most consumers. These challenges may make it more difficult to enact widespread adoption.
On the other hand, the first cultivated beef burger produced in 2013 by Mosa Meat, was estimated to cost a staggering €250,000 to produce, a cost that has rapidly declined in the last decade. It's also worth noting that achieving price parity with conventional meat is a primary objective for those involved in the alternative proteins sector. One of the challenges of reaching price parity is the ability to scale up production — which remains a major hurdle in the path of cultivated meat becoming a staple in everyday meals.
Still, a brand new company, Omeat, which just emerged from stealth mode, suggests they may have cracked the code on price and scaling with its 10,000 kg capacity bioreactors and, more importantly, its ability to harvest plasma from live cows (rather than expensive growth media, or morally undermining fetal bovine serum), without causing harm.
Okay, but do we actually need commercially cultivated meat, or is it just a costly gimmick, as some critics have suggested?
Considering the stakes, I believe we have a responsibility to explore all alternatives to intensive animal agriculture, including cultivated meat.
Current livestock production accounts for approximately 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions (a likely conservative estimate). Intensive animal production is linked to biodiversity loss, with existential levels of deforestation taking place in regions like the Amazon. Additionally, animal agriculture is a significant contributor to antibiotic resistance (AMR), one of humanity's top ten global health threats — not to mention the related human and animal rights infractions of intensive animal production.
And, if the idea of cultivated meat doesn't entice you, the alternative protein landscape is rich with options and innovations — from plant and mycelium-based products to fermentation and molecular farming. Consumers will (and already do) have a host of alternative protein options available.
I responded to the SMU consumer study, “Yes, I would eat again.” And I meant it.
I know it's a lot of hope to place on a humble-enough-looking chicken sandwich, but I believe that cultivated meat and other alternative proteins have the potential to render industrial animal agriculture and factory farming obsolete.
Not today. Not tomorrow.
Big thanks to Andrea Chia Sr. Tech Officer at Just Inc., Huber Butcher Staff, and the GOOD team for hosting. And to Emma H. Kelly for photography.
Author Bio: Marlana Malerich is the Community Manager at Protein Directory where she leads initiatives such as webinars, database management, research, and the development of brand strategy. Her background includes work across the food sector — from urban farming to international agriculture development, to food technology. Marlana holds an MSc from the University of Edinburgh in Food Security. She enjoys (among other things) science fiction, petting dogs, learning plant names, sharing bird facts, and discovering new ways to cook tofu.