Would you eat meat grown from chicken feathers? According to the emerging lab-grown meat industry, this so-called “cultured meat” will actually be more humane in the long run since there are no animals to feed and slaughter and it will help usher in a new more sustainable and more profitable era in the food industry.
They also publicize that it will be healthier for the planet, reduce carbon emissions, virtually eliminate animal suffering and make meat free of all of the pathogens that come with factory farmed meat.
But is all of that really true? Let’s have a look at these companies and their claims and think about some of the pros and cons.
This idea is pretty attractive to those that wish to reduce meat consumption for both ethical and health reasons. And there is some truth to the fact that eating less meat is good for our health and our planet and will indeed reduce the torture and suffering of animals grown in the massive number of factory farms that are found around the world.
However, it also brings up possible longterm health concerns with this greatly undertested and perhaps potentially dangerous technology that seems reminiscent of the beginnings of GMOs and Roundup-ready crops and with Monsanto and Bayer’s experiments with genetically engineered crops and the herbicides upon which the growth of many of our food crops are now dependent.
Monsanto and Bayer justified the creation of GMOs by continually asserting that their products were the only way to feed the millions of hungry people around the world and that this reality outweighed the risks of herbicides, pesticides and the unknowns surrounding GMOs.
Will the same thing happen when these global corporate interests are again mass producing our food and gaining a monopoly over its production?
The association with Tyson Foods (see below) is also a bit troubling considering the company’s long history of factory farming and its polluting of nearby waterways and this has had a long-lasting and negative impact on our collective health.
However, it’s worth considering that perhaps a transition to cultured meats (if done safely and without GMOs as any part of the ingredients or process), might greatly reduce the negative impacts on people’s health if it truly helps to eliminate industrial factory farming and its associated waste and the resulting pathogens in these meats that are often shipped to countries like China for processing.
Companies around the world see the potential for more sustainable profits are quickly developing and testing these new meat-like products with an eye on changing the future of food and increasing profit margins. But will they do so in a way that is safe and healthy?
One company, in particular, seems to have good intentions and makes a compelling argument in favor of cultured meats even though there’s a bit of an Ewwwe factor with the source of their product… feathers.
This Silicon Valley company is named “Just” and is making laboratory-grown meat that takes just two days for technicians to transform chicken feather cells into chicken nuggets. 1
The people at Just set out to use “one feather from the single best chicken we could find.” They settled on a chicken named Ian who had “really nice clean white feathers, a healthy comb, and wattle.” 2
Cells were cultured from one of Ian’s feathers and placed in a protein medium with nutrients that enable the cells to multiply quickly. After two days growing in a bioreactor, Ian’s feather cells produced enough engineered meat to make chicken nuggets.2 It is a bit like using starter dough to make sourdough bread, but in this case, Ian’s feather was the starter chicken.
This category of lab-grown food is called “clean meat” or “cultured meat,” made from animal cells without slaughtering the animals. 3 In an interview with Fast Company, here is how Josh Tetrick, company co-founder, and CEO, described their goals:
“Our theory is that given that human beings have been eating meat for about 2.4 million years, it’s a hard sell to get them to stop eating meat now, especially now that most of humanity is rising up out of poverty.
The process is quite interesting and he describes it in this video:
The best way to deal with the meat challenge is just to make better meat without all the issues associated with killing animals today.” As the Fast Company article observed, “Those aren’t just issues of animal ethics; the meat industry is also one of the world’s largest contributors to climate change.” 3
A writer for Quartz describes Just foods as being “a corner of the food industry hellbent on overthrowing the meat and egg industries.” 4 You may know the company under its former name, “Hampton Foods,” and its flagship vegan product Just Mayo. Tetrick says his company is not a vegan-food producer, but a “tech company that happens to be working with food.”5
The company’s lab is analyzing plant species from around the world in its search for “sustainable, animal-free alternatives to ingredients in processed foods. Bill Gates, has called the company a hopeful example of ‘the future of food.’”5
Just’s lab-meat development has been supported by venture capital, with a significant funder being the chicken giant, Tyson Foods. The BBC reports that the commitment to lab-meat reflects that Tyson has decided “to shift from being a meat company to a protein company.” 1
While the vegan “mayo” was a consumer hit, it remains to be seen whether the market for lab-meat will fly. An Israeli company named Future Meat Technologies that calls itself “Animal Free, Earth Friendly,” also seeks to “transform global meat production through distributive manufacturing of fat and muscle cells” using “cutting edge cellular agriculture technology.”6 Their first cultured meat products are expected to cost $365 dollars/pound with a goal of bringing the price down to $4.50/pound within two years.7
Thomas Bowman, the Research & Development Chef at Just described what it was like to cook with the cultured meat: “The chicken was handed off to me for this first prototype. I said to myself ‘I’m going to make the best chicken nuggets ever.’”
A Just promotional video shows test eaters sitting around a picnic table with Ian strutting around the yard. One of the diners observed, “It was an out-of-body experience to sit there and eat a chicken but have the chicken that you’re eating running around in front of you. You don’t imagine doing something like that but then you have this realization that we figured out how life really works and now we don’t need to cause death in order to create food. We’re going to have to do it if we want to continue living on this planet.”
The nuggets are not yet on the market, but already Just is collaborating with a Japanese cattle farmer to create a lab-meat Wagyu beef product. 3 It is not clear what the USDA’s response is to “clean meat,” and public hearings are still necessary to consider the product. The Cattlemen’s Association is leading a debate about how the product might be marketed, with possible labels being clean meat, cellular meat, slaughter-free meat, ethical protein, or meat. 1 Meanwhile, dozens of companies are developing protein start-ups.
Thank you for reading our article about this fast emerging development in the meat industry. Are you for or against these new proteins?