Brave New Chicken

Hey, want to enjoy that chicken salad sandwich just a bit more? What if it came without killing chickens raised in overstuffed coops with industrialized feed or slaughtered in factory assembly lines that evoke horrific imagery where COVID is running high?

Somewhere among the humanitarian lure of vegetarianism, the reality that hunger is measurably rising in this country and around the world, the building threats of climate change and the sheer pleasure of considering an issue that has nothing to do with Donald Trump, here comes the Big Idea du Jour: lab-grown meat, “cultured chicken” in this case.

It was an American start-up company that won government approval this week — in this case, the government of city-state Singapore — for sale of Chicken of the Lab to the public. At least one unnamed Singapore restaurant signed up, though it must be added that so far, the dish being pushed essentially is chicken nuggets rather than some aromatic herb-encrusted roaster with sizable drumsticks.

This is chicken that was never alive, that never clucked or laid egg, but, technically start out as chicken or, more precisely, a chicken cell. .

It was a moment for Josh Tetrick chief executive of Eat Just in San Francisco to, um, crow, reported The New York Times, among other publications. Eat Just has made it its business, literally, to grow food from cells.

In this case, it started with actual chicken meat cells and, the rest is, well, lab history.

“We’ve been eating meat for thousands of years, and every time we’ve eaten meat we’ve had to kill an animal — until now,” Tetrick told The Times.

The Rules or Is it Promotion

Singapore insists on a safety rule for sale of most new substances. As it happens, in the United States, no approval is required from the Food and Drug Administration for most new ingredients, including imitation meat developed by vegan food brands or plant-based “meats.”

Actually, the Singapore Food Agency said it had approved cultured chicken for sale as part of nuggets after a safety assessment submitted to the agency’s “novel food” group, seven outside experts on food science, toxicology, nutrition and epidemiology. The agency includes “cultured or cell-based meat grown under controlled conditions,” along with some species of algae, fungi and insects.

So, it is a unique approval, but likely to generate more applications in other countries, coming just as there are wider complaints and pressures about livestock raising, particularly as a climate issue, and lots more food insecurity.

If chicken or other meats can be grown in the lab from existing cells, can we address larger food issues, from pricing to acceptability? If chicken is okay, why not bacon — and the inevitable questions about what is kosher, literally and figuratively, and whether we can taste the difference. After all, no inhumane treatment of animals, no debates over slaughtering techniques, no mix of meats and milks, and presumably, fewer environmental impacts beyond the lab itself.

Tetrick previously had said that lab nuggets might cost $50 or more, but now the process must have progressed to the point where he now promises more normal pricing.

Eat Just already sells an egg-like lab product from mung beans that is sold in this country. There are other companies pursuing lab-grown fish and other foods.

The Livestock Dilemma

A year-old Atlantic Magazine article on cultured meat described America’s habitual addiction to animal meat, and the generational backlash being pushed by animal advocates for a change in the most unpleasant excesses of livestock industries, from farm through processing plants. Tetrik was frank in saying that he is involved in a business enterprise that runs against his Alabama BBQ roots.

A description of the chicken-slaughtering process in a 2017 New Yorker story about Case Farms in Canton, Ohio might be raw enough to make even fervent meat-eaters to think twice. “Every two seconds, employees grab a chicken and hang it upside down by its feet. . . The birds are stunned by an electric pulse before entering the “kill room,” where a razor slits their throats as they pass. The room looks like the set of a horror movie: blood splatters everywhere and pools on the floor.”

Livestock accounts for around 14.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions each year — roughly equivalent to the emissions from all the cars, trucks, airplanes and ships combined, The Times noted. Per gram of protein, cattle have more of an impact than pork, chicken or egg production, largely because they belch up methane, a potent planet-warming gas.

Meanwhile, it is clear that even in the United States, the hunger numbers are up. In recent measures, we see food bank lines stretching and reports that as many as one in four children are not getting sufficient food.

Hey new incoming Biden administration: At a time of growing food insecurity, ought we not be thinking about incenting new ways to produce more food?

So, get used to the idea of what Silicon Valley start-ups want to call “cultured meat” or “cell-based” meat, or “clean meat.” It’s an idea that has just made a regulatory landing in the new world.




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Terry Schwadron

Terry Schwadron

Journalist, musician, community volunteer