In a first, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has decided that a meat product grown in a lab is safe to eat.
The lab-grown chicken, produced by the company Upside Foods, cannot be sold quite yet—first, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will need to inspect the company’s production facilities and product, writes Wired’s Matt Reynolds. But industry experts anticipate the USDA will approve the meat in the coming months.
“This is huge for the industry,” Liz Specht, the vice president of science and technology at the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit promoting alternatives to animal products, tells the New York Times’ Clare Toeniskoetter. “For the very first time, this is the FDA giving the green light to a cultivated meat product.”
“We will see this as the day the food system really started changing,” Costa Yiannoulis, managing partner at the food technology investment firm Synthesis Capital, tells the Washington Post’s Laura Reiley. “The U.S. is the first meaningful market that has approved this—this is seismic and groundbreaking.”
Upside Foods’ lab-grown meat is biologically identical to standard meat, but it doesn’t require killing animals. Its cultivation process begins with cells extracted from real chickens, which the company grows in tanks. With a nutrient mixture that includes fats, sugars, amino acids and vitamins, the cells mature and multiply, according to NPR’s Allison Aubrey.
The FDA’s decision only applies to the chicken grown by Upside Foods. But the lab-grown meat industry consists of over 150 companies on six continents with more than $2.6 billion in combined investments, according to the Post.
So far, Singapore has been the only country where lab-grown meat can be sold, per the Times. But the recent announcement from the FDA is a sign that other cultivated meat products might soon get the agency's approval, Yiannoulis tells the Post.
Some hope that lab-grown meat could reduce the carbon footprint of the food industry. After all, food production creates one third of all greenhouse gas emissions from human activity, per NPR. Grazing animals take up a lot of land and emit the potent greenhouse gas methane, but lab-grown meat eliminates that part of the production process. If humans continue to consume meat at the current rate, we will be unable to cap global temperature rise at 1.5 degrees Celsius, per the Post.
Lab-grown meat also has the potential to be safer for consumption, compared to conventional meat. Since it doesn’t involve animals that can spread diseases, people might catch foodborne illnesses less frequently, per NPR.
“From a food safety standpoint, it probably has a one up” on the traditional meat industry, Dana Hunnes, a dietitian and expert in plant-based and sustainable nutrition at the University of California Los Angeles Medical Center, tells the publication.
Still, it remains unclear whether companies will be able to manufacture the lab-grown meat cheaply enough for it to compete with other meat products. The cost of lab-grown meat will likely be several times that of regular meat, according to Wired. Producing meat in the lab “will never be done with anything remotely like the economics you need for food,” Pat Brown, founder of the plant-based meat company Impossible Foods, told the Post last year.
At present, lab-grown meat companies wouldn’t have the means to sell their products widely, since they have small production facilities, writes Wired. Upside Foods plans to first sell its chicken in restaurants before grocery stores, per the Times. Though it might take more than a decade for cultivated meat to be sold at scale, industry experts are optimistic. “The next phase for us and the industry is demonstrating scalability,” Valeti tells Wired. “It is the future.”