Joshua Tetrick wants to kill fewer animals, protect the environment, and reduce malnutrition in the developing world. But he knows veganism is a nonstarter for most people. So instead of converting consumers on his ideology, he founded a company that appeals to our taste buds with real meat grown in Petri dishes.
In contrast to plant-based meat alternatives, Tetrick's San Francisco–based firm, Just, cultivates actual animal tissue by extracting cellular material obtained via biopsy from a live chicken. Lab technicians then feed the cells a proprietary nutrient mix that causes them to multiply. In other words, they create meat without killing a single chicken.
In 2018, Tetrick told Reason that Just wanted its nuggets on shelves by the end of that year. It didn't happen, but the company does plan to start selling in the Asian market in 2019.
Just and other lab-cultivated meat companies—such as Memphis Meats, which produces lamb, chicken, and duck—have a ways to go on the research side. A single nugget costs Just about $100 to produce, according to Tetrick. But the companies also face regulatory uncertainty in the United States. For one, there's an ongoing fight over labeling. The U.S. Cattlemen's Association has lobbied the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to define "meat" as a product deriving from an animal "slaughtered in the traditional manner" and for cultured meat to be labeled, simply, "protein."
And then there's the question of food safety oversight. In October 2018, the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration announced that they both will regulate cultured meat. A memorandum of understanding from the latter agency indicated that, unlike with most other food products, the agencies likely will require pre-market approval, meaning the government gets to decide if a cultured meat product is safe for human consumption before it goes on sale to consumers.
Still, money is flowing toward cultured meat, which is beginning to attract investment from traditional players. Tyson holds a minority stake in Memphis Meats and put $2.2 million into Future Meat Technologies, an Israeli company that wants to cut the price of cultured beef to $2.27 per pound by 2020. Just, in addition to its chicken nugget product, recently announced a contract with the Tokyo-based farm Toriyama to produce lab-cultured wagyu beef.
If "clean meat" can scale up, it could mean a world with less animal suffering, the restoration of ecosystems damaged by industrial livestock operations, a reduction in harmful emissions, and, ultimately, a cheaper source of delicious protein engineered to satisfy a growing global population.