Lab-Grown Meat Is Coming, Whether You Like It or Not

Standing in a kitchen in San Francisco, in a state where foie gras is illegal, Josh Tetrick cuts into the pale gray pate anyway and smears it on a thin piece of bread. “You prettied it up a little bit,” he says to a bearded chef, pointing his butter knife at the plate, “what’s going on here?”

“Little carrot and vanilla puree,” says the cook. “Little beet, little bit of a splatter there to mimic the atrocity that we’re taking away.”

Tetrick chews on the delicacy. “Even though I’m not a foie expert,” he says, “I’ve been eating a little bit more foie outside the state of California for the past handful of months, and it tastes like foie should.”

It tastes like foie gras should because you could make the argument that it isn’t really foie gras. Because this is no ordinary kitchen—it’s also a lab. Tetrick is the CEO of Just, a controversial food company formerly known as Hampton Creek, whose entire board quit last year. And his scientists here grew the meat in the lab from cells, incubating them with heat and feeding them nutrients. Compare that to getting foie gras the old-fashioned way: force-feeding a duck or goose until its liver balloons to up to 10 times its normal size.

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Just’s tacos made with lab-grown chorizo.


Scientists have been culturing meat in labs for years, but Just and other startups like Finless Foods, which is growing fish meat, have been feverishly pursuing this so-called “clean meat” of late. Just is chasing a cultured chorizo and a cultured nugget in addition to the foie gras. And Tetrick claims his startup has finally made the process cost-effective enough to take to market: At the end of this year, he says, Just will officially introduce an as yet undisclosed lab-grown meat, the first time the stuff will hit shelves.

The challenges of engineering meat in the lab is one thing, but convincing consumers to turn away from the storied kill-it-and-grill-it method of eating is another. And while it’s easy to imagine how lab-grown meat would be better for the planet, there’s actually little data to back that up.

Whether or not Just makes it to market this year, and whether or not their meat tastes and smells and feels like meat, the era of clean meat is approaching. (Just declined to let us taste their food, saying it wasn’t ready for public consumption.) Soon enough, burgers will grow not just in fields, but in vats. Farther down the line, your T-bones may not come from a cow, at least not in the traditional sense. If the sound of that bothers you, know that you’re not alone.

There’s Got to Be a Better Way

The promise of lab-grown meat isn’t to stop eating animals—it’s just to eat way, way fewer of them. In America alone, we consume 26 billion pounds of beef a year. That demands a massive industrialized livestock system that is problematic for the planet. One cow can consume up to 11,000 gallons of water a year. Worldwide, livestock may be responsible for 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. And the system rarely has the animals’ best interests in mind.

But cultured tissue offers a way to potentially grow many meals’ worth of meat from just a handful of cells. Under the right conditions in a lab, cells can be encouraged to divide just like they do inside the body—cutting down on natural resources, gas, and animal rights abuses. “Theoretically from one little piece of meat you can create an unlimited amount,” says Mike Selden, CEO of Finless Foods.

The precise methods vary between labs and companies. “In practice, it doesn’t work the first time—you’ve got to try a bunch of different things to get it to work,” says Selden. At Finless Foods, they take a bit of fish meat and filter it for a particular kind of cell, not so much stem cells but stem-like cells, what they’re calling progenitor cells. “We’re looking for cells that have the ability to differentiate into different lineages,” says Selden. “So we’re looking for cells that are stem enough.”

The idea is to trick these cells into thinking they’re still in their owner. So by feeding them nutrients like salts and sugars, Finless can get the cells to turn into muscles or fat or connective tissue. Think of it like sourdough yeast: Once you’ve got a starter strain, you can keep making a distinctive bread. “Once each of these companies has a cell line going,” says Selden, “they never have to go back to the initial animal.”


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