Cultured chicken

“What do you call a vegan who eats plant-based products, but will eat [this] chicken?” jokes Josh Tetrick, CEO of Eat Just. Tetrick is talking about the lab-grown or cultured chicken his company produces. Produced from chicken cells in a factory, it is more environmentally sustainable and doesn’t involve animal slaughter.

Built like an athlete, Tetrick, 41, cuts an unlikely figure as a vegan agri-tech entrepreneur. Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, he ate plenty of chicken. “I played football in high school and college. At that time, I had this misconception that I had to eat animal protein to be an athlete. Josh Balk, my best friend and co-founder at Eat Just was always on me about what I put in my body and whether it aligned with me trying to be a good person. So I told him that I’d stop eating meat when I stopped playing football.”

Tetrick eventually also cut out dairy and has been on a plant-based diet for the past 15 years of his life – that is, until Eat Just started producing cultured meats.

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The price of progress

The idea of growing animal meat synthetically is not new. It goes as far back as the 1930s when Winston Churchill proposed in his essay Fifty Years Hence: “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”

The first public trial of cultured meat was a beef burger patty created in 2013 by Dr Mark Post at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. That single patty took two years and cost US$300,000 (S$399,000) to produce.

Today, there are over 30 cultured meat companies worldwide racing to create a market-ready product. Eat Just has pulled ahead and achieved something unprecedented: the world’s first commercial sale of such a product. In December 2020, it began offering its cultured chicken at 1880, a private members club in Singapore. Even though the chefs carefully plate Eat Just’s cultured chicken bites, there’s no denying the distinctively uniform texture and crispy breaded crust… of a chicken nugget.

There’s a good reason though. Besides the fact that it’s the only form of cultured meat from Eat Just that’s currently approved for sale by the Singapore Food Agency (SFA), the chicken nugget is the perfect democratic medium for Tetrick’s ambitions to make cultured meat as commonplace as, well, meat.

Chicken is the most-consumed meat in the world and the nugget is widely loved.

At $23 for a few pieces – sold without making any profit – at 1880, it is by no means a market-ready price, but it is also a stunning indication of how far we’ve come from a nearly half-a-million-dollar patty.

“Try to name a new thing that was accepted by everyone on day one. When the Wright brothers put a machine in the air, it wasn’t accepted; people thought it would only be something for rich folks. People also laughed when electric cars came out in the ‘70s,” Tetrick says.

“There’s a process to normalisation. It’s about getting the product on more menus and being transparent about its production process and how that differs from traditional farming. It’s also about getting influential people – chefs, policymakers, regulators – to speak out. The combination of technological and cultural change will ultimately bring us to a place I want to see in my lifetime, where the majority of meat eaten every day will not require the killing a single animal or the tearing down of a single tree.”

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To scale a chicken

What does it take to bring cultured meat from the labs and factories into a restaurant? For Eat Just, it was two years of extensive testing and documentation to prove the product was not just safe and nutritious, but could also be consistently reproduced. Perhaps more important is the availability of a regulatory body that can efficiently make things happen.

Tetrick candidly opines, “In Singapore, the authorities look at the substance, the facts and the future. In the US, they look at the substance, the facts, the future and politics, politics, politics.”

With its chicken bites approved for commercial sale, Eat Just’s next and biggest step is to lower production costs. Cultured meat is grown in a nutrient solution. One of the most popular and efficient mediums is a foetal bovine serum (FBS), a common component of animal cell culture media extracted from the bovine foetuses of pregnant cows during slaughter. While presenting a host of ethical concerns, FBS is also expensive at US$1,000 per litre, making up a significant portion of the production costs.

Eat Just has made significant headway in the ethical space. The current solution used to produce Eat Just’s chicken bites uses, says Tetrick, “a little less than two per cent of FBS”. Even more promising is his reveal that they’ve managed to fully replace FBS with a sustainable, plant-based material in a new growth solution formula. Tetrick applied for approval with the SFA two years ago and is waiting for the outcome.

As for costs, Tetrick is aiming for this to be cheaper than bred chickens in five to 10 years. “To do that, we will need to scale up from our current 1,000-litre bioreactor to hundreds of thousands of litres. We also need to improve the technology – cell density, texture and flavour – of the product.”

Besides being a sustainable, ethical method of producing animal protein, the technology cultured meat companies are working on has massive gastronomic potential. Imagine being able to produce top-grade wagyu at the same price it takes to produce chicken. Eat Just is already collaborating with Japanese wagyu farmers in Toriyama on this project.

Hopefully one day, “cultured chicken will no longer be called cultured chicken, it will just be called chicken,” says Tetrick. Now that’s a future – not forgetting democratically-priced wagyu – we can all get behind.

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