SAN FRANCISCO—The thought I had when the $100 chicken nugget hit my expectant tongue was the one cartoon villains have when they entrap a foreign critter and roast him over a spit: It tastes like chicken.
That’s because it was chicken—albeit chicken that had never laid an egg, sprouted a feather, or been swept through an electrified-water bath for slaughter. This chicken began life as a primordial mush in a bioreactor whose dimensions and brand I’m not allowed to describe to you, for intellectual-property reasons. Before that, it was a collection of cells swirling calmly in a red-hued, nutrient-rich “media,” with a glass flask for an eggshell. The chicken is definitely real, and technically animal flesh, but it left the world as it entered it—a mass of meat, ready for human consumption, with no brain or wings or feet.
This meat was what most of the world calls “lab grown,” but what Just, the company that makes the nugget, and other Silicon Valley start-ups want me to call “cultured meat” or “cell-based” meat, or better yet, “clean meat.” The argument is that almost all the food we eat, at some point, crosses a laboratory, whether in the course of researching flavors or perfecting packaging. So it is not fair to single out this particular product as being associated with freaky science. (Yes, I raised the point that all meat is technically cell-based, too, and no, this did not persuade anyone at the start-ups.)
“Every big brewery has a little room in the back which is clean, and has people in white lab coats, and they’re not ‘lab-grown’ beer,” argues Michael Selden, the co-founder of a cell-based-fish start-up, Finless Foods. “But we’re for some reason lab-grown fish, even though it really is the exact same thing.”
Regardless of what you call it, Just and others say it’s coming. Just, which was called Hampton Creek until last year, started out making vegan “eggs” and mayonnaise, then revealed in 2017 that it had also been working on cultured meat. The nugget was served to me to demonstrate that Just isn’t vaporware, in Silicon Valley parlance, or in this case, vapor-poultry. There’s a there there, and it’s edible.
Just has been mired in turmoil in recent years, as board members resigned and former employees complained of shoddy science. (CEO Josh Tetrick calls the claims “blatantly wrong.”) Because of what the company said are regulatory hurdles, Just missed its goal of making a commercial sale of the chicken nuggets by the end of 2018. The Atlantic ran a somewhat unflattering profile of Tetrick in 2017, implying that the company is more style than substance.
Tetrick seemed eager to prove this magazine wrong. He told me he tries not to get too down about bad press. A couple of years ago, “we were pretty much just selling mayonnaise,” he said. But now the plant-based Just Egg, which was practically a prototype when the Atlantic article came out, is in grocery stores, and as of this week, you can order it at Bareburger and the mid-Atlantic chain Silver Diner.
Cultured chicken is, too, now on the horizon—that is, if people are willing to eat it. And if Just can ever make enough of it to feed them.
Tetrick is hawklike and southern, which, when combined with his conservational tendencies, lends him young–Al Gore energy. He’s nostalgic for chicken wings even though he’s vegan and does not eat them. When I visited Just a few weeks ago, he showed me a photo of wads of meat and fat in a bowl. They are chunks of Japanese beef that the company hopes to grow into a cultured version by scraping off samples within 24 hours of the animal’s demise. This product wasn’t ready for me to taste yet, but it’s important, in Tetrick’s view, to be a little bit aspirational. “If my team cannot see where we want to go, they’re never gonna go there,” he said.
“There” is a world in which cultured meat is inexpensive and everyone eats it, even if those same people have never heard of tempeh. Living, breathing, belching livestock is responsible for 15 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions, about on par with cars. But Tetrick thinks that for many Americans, flavor and price rule the shopping cart, not environmentalism.
“I was born in Birmingham, Alabama, so imagine one of my friends who doesn’t care about any of the shit that I’m doing now,” he said, while perched on a bar stool in front of Just’s test kitchen. This hypothetical friend goes to a Piggly Wiggly to buy burgers. Except—oh wait!—next to the animal-based patties wrapped in clear plastic, he sees a Just burger patty for less money. “That, to me, is what it’s gonna take in order to break the dam of a habit,” Tetrick said.
Animal meat is a habit that many young Americans are ready to abandon. A quarter of 25-to-34-year-old Americans now say they are vegans or vegetarians, prompting The Economist to proclaim 2019 “the year of the vegan.” Burger King this month introduced a Whopper made with a plant-based Impossible patty. True, chicken grown in a bioreactor like Just’s is still animal, not vegetable; but without the factory-farming component, some vegetarians and vegans might be inclined to love their chickens and eat them too.
I am the ideal customer for this, because I enjoy meat-like flavors but don’t appreciate the more carnal elements of meat. I’m sure the Wrangler-clad Texan Council will revoke my Texanship for saying this, but I have never had a rare steak. I’ve never eaten something and thought, I wish this would make more of a murdery mess on my plate. And yet, I have no interest in passing up barbecue or Tex-Mex when I visit home or in telling my first-generation immigrant parents that I no longer eat meat. I would like a protein-rich substance that reminds me of my childhood and injects a robust, savory essence into my salad. I do not, however, care if that substance was ever technically alive.
Because frankly, life for many mass-bred animals is no life at all. In her book Big Chicken, Maryn McKenna describes seeing 30,000 birds crammed into a hot shed, some with bellies rubbed raw and legs twisted underneath them. Or, behold this description of the chicken-slaughtering process in a 2017 New Yorker story about Case Farms in Canton, Ohio:
At the plant, the birds are dumped into a chute that leads to the “live hang” area, a room bathed in black light, which keeps the birds calm. Every two seconds, employees grab a chicken and hang it upside down by its feet. “This piece here is called a breast rub,” Chester Hawk, the plant’s burly maintenance manager, told me, pointing to a plastic pad. “It’s rubbing their breast, and it’s giving them a calming sensation. You can see the bird coming toward the stunner. He’s very calm.” The birds are stunned by an electric pulse before entering the “kill room,” where a razor slits their throats as they pass. The room looks like the set of a horror movie: blood splatters everywhere and pools on the floor. One worker, known as the “backup killer,” stands in the middle, poking chickens with his knife and slicing their necks if they’re still alive.
(In response to the New Yorker story, Case Farms issued a statement that read, in part, “Our employees and growers share a committed responsibility to ensure the well-being and humane handling of all animals in our care.”)
Just’s process, meanwhile, is much more clinical. The company takes live cells from biopsies that don’t require the death of the chicken. It then isolates the cells that are most likely to grow, and gently nurtures them in tank-like bioreactors in a soup of proteins, sugar, and vitamins.
Across the bay from Just, in Emeryville, California, Finless Foods is attempting to perform this same procedure on fish. It’s not as far along as Just: Finless Foods has only 11 employees, to Just’s 120. Its office looks even less like a traditional workplace, with mismatched desks that early employees picked up from a used-furniture store. Its largest bioreactor holds only a liter of fish meat, while Just expects that in the “near term,” its bioreactors will have a capacity of hundreds to thousands of liters.
Finless Foods’ Michael Selden rattled off an assortment of environmental and social injustices that motivate the need for cultured meat, from microplastics in our oceans, to greenhouse gases from shipping, to what he calls “environmental imperialism”: “The way that we get our food is very much just sort of like, we take what we want,” he told me. “If you live in San Francisco and you eat bluefin tuna, that bluefin tuna almost definitely comes from the Philippines. And we basically have fishing fleets in the Philippines that are, like, destroying local ecosystems to feed us.”
Whether Americans are sufficiently distraught over the state of Filipino ecosystems to replace a dinnertime staple remains to be seen. But for now, these companies have bigger challenges to getting to market.
For Finless Foods, a major hurdle is texture. It aims to make cultured bluefin tuna, which in animal form glistens like raspberry jam and springs back like a wet sponge. “I will not say we’ve fully solved that problem, because I’d be totally lying,” Selden said. The few journalists who have tasted the product were served a carp croquette that one reporter described as having “a pleasant aftertaste of the sea, though not fish as such.” Selden is looking into 3-D printing as a potential path to creating a sashimi-like simulacrum.
Similarly, when I asked Tetrick when his nuggets would actually be on sale, he glanced at Andrew Noyes, Just’s PR guy. “I know Andrew loves when I give timelines,” he said coyly. “I drive him crazy. It’s more likely than not … between now and the end of the year that we’re selling outside of the United States.”
Before that happens, the bioreactors need to get larger, and there have to be many, many more of them, without sacrificing quality. Tetrick estimated that there would need to be 25 to 100 culturing facilities just to fulfill America’s demand for meat. These companies are also searching for a way to reduce the cost of the “media”—the vitamin slush the cells incubate in—potentially by reusing it.
Finally, the Just employees told me, they need the U.S. government to figure out a way to regulate the product, so people can rest assured that it’s not going to make them ill.
Al Almanza, the former acting deputy undersecretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, agrees that there aren’t enough data yet for food inspectors to know what’s normal or abnormal—and thus potentially unsafe—in a cultured-chicken plant. But he also says that regulators would probably expedite approval for Just if the company reached a scale at which it could sell its cultured meat, which it hasn’t yet. (The USDA did not return a request for comment.) And while Just argues that its process is better, from a food-safety standpoint, than animal slaughter, we only have the company’s word to go on at this point.
“Unless you have a perfectly sterile facility, with a cleanroom, and the bioreactors are being operated by robots, you’re at risk of some kind of contamination,” says Ben Wurgaft, a writer and historian who’s writing a book about laboratory-grown meat.
The U.S. Cattlemen’s Association has argued that only beef that’s been raised and slaughtered should be labeled “beef.” Just fervently hopes that when labeling rules do come down, it will be allowed to call its product “meat,” rather than “lab-grown meat,” for the good of public relations, if not fairness. “Back in Alabama, where all my old friends drive pickup trucks, imagine if Tesla put out a really fast, really affordable pickup truck, but Tesla couldn’t call it a pickup truck,” Tetrick said. “On the back, they had to say, like, ‘Electric mobility transport wheeler,’ or some godforsaken name. My friends do not want to drive that, because it fucks with their identity, unfortunately.”
On my visit to Just’s office, I asked Josh Hyman, the company’s chief of staff for research and development, whether the concept of cultured meat ever weirds anyone out.
“Yeah! I think it does,” he said as he prepared to fry up my $100 nugget from its frozen state. “Till you explain it.”
This is what Tetrick calls the “cultural component,” or letting “the consumer know this is a positive thing and they should eat it for dinner.”
As I chewed my nugget, I realized that though its taste asymptotically approached chicken, it was not, alas, chicken. It was crunchy, thanks to the fried, breaded coating; it was flavorful, thanks to the salt and spices inside; and its innards were creamy, which frankly is an improvement on the graininess of most processed nuggets. But it lacked the gamey animal kick that screams “chicken.”
We like meat to taste a certain way, but I realized that if I had never before had chicken, I might prefer this. Why is gaminess a virtue, anyway? Some people relish traditions such as hunting and fishing and the more visceral experiences with meat they provide. But if Just and similar companies are successful, future generations might only know chicken to be a pleasant, meat-esque paste, with no bones and skins to speak of. In fact, our entire notion of animal products might become unhinged from animals. The idea that human gustatory pleasure necessarily involves the inhumane farming of other creatures might come to be seen as outdated and gauche. A “real” chicken sandwich might be viewed, in some quarters, as barbarous as poaching. That is, if the bioreactor thing gets worked out.
Several Just employees have culinary backgrounds, and Hyman presided in front of the tasting table like a proud chef. There was heating up and cooling down of a pot of oil to reach the perfect temperature for my nugget. Noyes, who lived in D.C. before moving out West, shifted warily and remarked a few times that we were running “behind schedule.”
After serving me the nugget, Hyman scrambled up a custard-colored mung-bean egg substitute—the Just Egg, which comes in a squeeze bottle. It was fine; I don’t love scrambled eggs. Then he fed me a dairy-free rum-raisin ice cream that was one of the best desserts I’ve ever had.
Finally, he served up a breakfast sandwich made with a firm, plant-based “egg” patty. The patty had a pleasing earthiness, offset perfectly by a glop of spicy, stringy pimento cheese. Even at 3 p.m., after a full lunch, it was objectively tasty. If I had been hungover, it would have been heaven.
“Is this real cheese?” I asked.
“No,” Hyman said.
“What is it?” I asked.
He smiled. “We’re not allowed to say.”