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EMERYVILLE, Calif. — Until I read the release form, I wasn’t concerned that the bite of sautéed chicken breast I was about to eat had taken less than three weeks to grow from a few cells inside a laboratory tank to a thick sheet of meat.
Would I assume full responsibility, the form asked, for any personal injury, property damage or death that came from ingesting meat “whose properties are not completely known”?
I was in the airy test kitchen and production center that Upside Foods opened four months ago in a Bay Area residential shopping district as part of its quest to sell chicken grown from animal stem cells, first in the United States and then globally. They hope other foods, including beef, duck and lobster, won’t be far behind.
“We just cannot take for granted that what we eat now is the gold standard,” said Dr. Uma Valeti, the cardiologist who helped start the company in 2015 after he became convinced that the same medical technology used to grow stem cells to repair a human heart could also grow food.
“We are changing the paradigm,” he said. “We are detaching the meat from the animal.”
Tissue engineers and scientists in several countries are trying to find a commercially viable way to transform animal stem cells into a marbled Wagyu steak, briny oysters or sushi-grade salmon. Their work is fed by nearly $3 billion in investments from companies like Archer-Daniels-Midland and the Brazilian meat giant JBS; billionaires like Bill Gates; environmentally minded celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio; and government agencies including the US Department of Agriculture and the Qatar Investment Authority.
The global market for what is most commonly known as cell-based or cultivated meat could reach $25 billion by 2030, according to the consultants McKinsey & Company. That would be a tiny slice of the projected $1.4 trillion meat market, but one that food companies see as a key player in the fast-growing category called alternative meat.
Growing cells into meat remains the Wild West of food production. Although companies are racing to file for patents, and guard breakthroughs in cell technology like gold, almost a decade after the first cell-grown hamburger was introduced at a packed media event, the notion of buying an engineered steak at the grocery store remains an expensive theory.
Only about 700 people in the world have ever purchased cellular meat — most of it ground, breaded and fried, and all of it in Singapore, which became the first nation to grant regulatory approval in 2020. And though the United States isn’t far behind (the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration could finish writing rules about how to produce and sell cultured meat by the end of the year) all of this is still a long way from the grocery store.
There are plenty of questions about whether producers will ever master the technology and build plants big enough to make commercially viable amounts of the meat at a price consumers will pay.
But as the theoretical keeps inching closer to reality, curious cooks and adventurous diners are taking a closer look at whether farming meat cells will—or should—be widely embraced, the way plant-based meat substitutes have been.
“I’m not excited about it, but I wouldn’t bet against it,” said the restaurateur Danny Meyer, who added that he has yet to see evidence that cell-based meat is healthier, better for the planet or not just for elite diners. “I want to buy food for dinner, not a science experiment.”
For true believers, growing meat in tanks is a way to lessen the environmental impact of industrial meat production and relief animal suffering. It could reduce food-borne illnesses, they say, and create an abundant meat supply to feed the world.
Opponents say the process ignores both culture and nature, and could be scientifically risky, creating potential allergens and untested byproducts, along with waste that might be a biohazard. And it ignores the value of time-tested regenerative agricultural practices in favor of unproven claims of environmental gain.
“If for any reason someone wants to avoid animal protein, why not just eat plants and foods made with plants?” said Alan Lewis, who oversees governmental affairs for the Natural Grocers health food chain. “The obsession with the taste and texture of meat I can understand. But taking the leap of faith to consume synthetic protein seems entirely unnecessary.”
The chef José Andrés believes in the meat’s potential, and plans to serve it at one of his restaurants once it becomes available. He recently joined the board of Good Meat, a division of Eat Just that makes plant-based eggs from mung beans. In 2020, Good Meat became the first company in the world to sell cultivated meat. It debuted at a private club in Singapore, which tucked the meat into a bao bun and turned it into a crisp patty on a maple waffle.
Upside Foods has signed a multiyear consulting contract with Dominique Crenn, whose San Francisco restaurant Atelier Crenn has three Michelin stars. She serves no chicken or red meat on her tasting menu, but has promised to add the company’s chicken and help promote it.
When Dr. Valeti approached Ms. Crenn last year, her initial thought was, “No way.” But then she thought, why not? “I love farmers and ranchers. That is not what I am against. I am against factory farming. That is not sustainable.”
At her first tasting, she thought the breast meat was a bit mushy, but the flavor reminded her of poulet rouge, a heritage breed from France.
Michal Ansky, an Israeli food journalist who hosts “MasterChef Israel” and has opened several farmers’ markets, is also a fan. She tried cell-based chicken in January during a blind tasting set up by SuperMeat, one of several cell-based meat companies in Israel.
She and a panel sampled it alongside traditionally grown minced chicken. Ms. Ansky was convinced that the better-tasting chicken came from an animal. She was wrong, and she became a convert. She even thinks the meat could find a place at farmers’ markets.
“Food is more than ingredients,” Ms. Ansky said in a phone interview from Tel Aviv. “Food is about memory and tradition and identity and longing. If my grandmother was still alive and could make her chicken soup with the lab meat, many lives would be better.”
In 20 years, she said, “people will look at us as crazy people who slaughtered chickens.”
The chef Dan Barber, co-owner of the Blue Hill restaurants in New York State, said lab-grown food enriches no one but the investors, and ignores the environmental and phytochemical benefits that come when animals feed on pasture, which translates into both flavor and better nutrition. “As they say, ‘It’s not the cow, it’s the how,’” he said.
The meteoric rise of highly processed plant-based proteins has kicked open the door for cellular agriculture. It’s been only six years since Impossible Foods introduced a patty made with soy leghemoglobin to mimic beef blood. Now McDonald’s is testing a McPlant burger, and KFC is selling plant-based chicken nuggets from Beyond Meat.
Cultivated meat is an entirely different creature. It begins with stem cells from an animal biopsy, an egg or even a feather that multiply rapidly in a stainless steel tank called a bioreactor or cultivator. The cells feed on a complex broth that contains nutrients like carbohydrates and amino acids, and some type of growth factor, to become muscle, fat or connective tissue. Taste and nutrition are controlled by cell selection and the broth they grow in.
Making a product that looks like ground meat is easier than replicating traditional cuts. To create something that looks like a steak or a chop, some companies use an edible scaffold that the cells can attach to. Scientists are experimenting with biological 3-D printing technology originally designed to rebuild human tissue, using it instead to turn layers of muscle and fat tissue into Wagyu-style beef.
And the taste? In the Upside Food test kitchen, I sampled a slightly grainy chicken pâté and a perfectly round breakfast patty blended with plant-based proteins that fried up nicely. Generous seasoning masked the flavor of the meat.
The breast I ate came from tissue that had grown short meat fibers and had been pressed into plastic molds to approximate the size and shape of a small boneless breast. It had less chew but much more flavor than a typical grocery-store breast. The biggest difference was how the meat reacted in a pan. As it browned, the surface looked more like coarsely ground meat than whole muscle.
What to call meat grown in tanks remains a battle. The United States Cattlemen’s Association petitioned the Department of Agriculture in 2018 to limit the definition of meat and beef to products derived from animals born, raised and harvested in the traditional manner. The request was denied. States have jumped in. In Georgia, cell-cultured products have to be labeled “lab-grown,” “lab-created” or “grown in a lab.”
Most producers prefer the term cultivated meat, or cultured meat. The terms slaughter-free meat or clean meat are favored by some in the animal-rights contingent. Cooks, ranchers and others who oppose it call it synthetic, fake or engineered meat. The debate is likely to be settled, at least legally, when the agriculture department decides what to require on the label.
David Kaplan oversees the new National Institute for Cellular Agriculture at Tufts University, which in October received a $10 million grant from the Department of Agriculture to study cellular meat, from production to consumer acceptance. He prefers the term cultured meat. “Really, there is nothing artificial about this,” he said.
Dr. Kaplan and others acknowledge that squeamishness about the technology remains a hurdle. In a consumer survey released this year by Britain’s Food Standards Agency, only a third of those polled said they would try it. Just one in 10 Americans would be interested in trying food or beverages grown from cells, said Dasha Shor, an associate director of the market research firm Mintel.
The first consumer products will likely be a blend of plant-based proteins and cell-grown meat, she said, adding that younger people are more open to cultivated meat than their elders, which is why companies like Aleph Farms, in Israel, are recruiting members of Generation Z as cell-meat ambassadors.
Josh Tetrick, a founder and the chief executive of Eat Just, thinks acceptance is just a matter of time. “When the freezer came out, people thought it was bizarre, too,” he said.
Isha Datar is the executive director of New Harvest, a nonprofit institute that funds open, public research into cellular agriculture. In an October TED Talk that’s been viewed 1.6 million times, she contends that growing cells for meat offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fix a broken agricultural system. It could be as revolutionary, she says, as the transition from hunting to farming.
But she cautions that investors and companies have too much control over a process that, like making beer or cheese or growing vegetables, shouldn’t be treated as intellectual property.
“What does it mean for one company to own the recipe for meat?” she said. “It has the capacity to be very good and to be very bad.”
Audio produced by Tally Abecassis.