It's a landmark moment for this nascent industry and for those looking for a cruelty-free steak: cultured meat, grown in bioreactors, has been approved for sale in Singapore. The chicken bites by the San Francisco-based startup Eat Just will soon go on sale.
Demand for cruelty-free meat has surged in recent years, particularly as consumers become more concerned about animal welfare and the impact on the environment. A related, but separate industry is already thriving: the plant-based 'meat' industry is already consuming large chunks of the 'real' meat industry, with the likes of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods increasingly on the supermarket and restaurant menus.
But for those who want actual meat without the cruelty, a solution is on the horizon.
Cultured meat is meat produced in vitro through the culturing of animal cells, instead of in a farm. It's essentially a form of cellular agriculture -- it's meat, but you 'grow' it instead of killing animals. The concept was first popularized in the early 2000s after a seminal research paper and has inspired multiple startups working on various types of meat, including Singapore’s own Shiok Meats which is working on lab-grown crustacean meats.
Nowadays, dozens of cultured meat startups have sprung up and have been successful. It can definitely be done (we've just seen a lab-grown meat restaurant open in Israel), and Singapore considers this type of meat important to its food security. Officially, Singapore has now given “the world’s first regulatory approval for a cultivated meat product,” approving Eat Just's chicken bites as safe for sale and consumption.
“It was found to be safe for consumption at the intended levels of use, and was allowed to be sold in Singapore as an ingredient in Eat Just’s nuggets product,” the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) said upon reviewing the product.
The product will debut as a chicken nugget with breading and seasoning at a single restaurant, but production will be scaled, as Eat Just CEO Josh Tetrick says the company wants to make Singapore "the focus" of its global manufacturing.
“I'm sure that our regulatory approval for cultured meat will be the first of many in Singapore and in countries around the globe,” said Josh Tetrick, the Eat Just co-founder in a media release.
It tastes just like chicken, Tetrick says, and it's much more humane. No antibiotics were used in the process, and the product has fewer microbes than regular chicken, the company says. The problem, however, remains the price.
In 2019, Eat Just said it would sell a serving of cultured chicken for $50 -- which would realistically mean that it could only be sold as a novelty food. But now, the company says it can sell the nuggets at the price that's competitive with "premium chicken." The company also expects prices to drop even more as it scales production operations.
This is an important victory for the young lab-grown meat industry, which is expected to be worth $80 billion by 2030. In Singapore, Eat Just is already preparing to submit another application, for its lab-created beef burgers. But whether or not the move will catch on to other places is still unclear. Places like North America or the US might not move as quickly as the hi-tech city-state of Singapore.
But sooner or later, the industry is bound to emerge in other parts of the world. Currently, 130 million chickens are slaughtered every day, and it's estimated that 77 billion land animals are slaughtered for food each year. By weight, 60% of the mammals on Earth are livestock, 36% are humans and only 4% are wild.