Goodbye henhouses: laboratory chicken meat is approved for the first time

“Our chicken looks, cooks and tastes like chicken, because it’s real chicken.”

The company presents itself on its website with this motto Upside Foods, the first company to obtain approval from the demanding Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the regulatory authority for food and drugs in the United States, for the first chicken meat produced without chickens. In other words, beyond the sensible evidence, that chicken was never a chick.

To be precise, we should say that it is obtained from a few primary chicken cells or from fertilized eggs. What is completely true is that to eat these little breasts there are no breeding establishments, no overcrowded chickens, no handling of excrement, no invasive flies, and nothing remotely resembling a hatchery.

Rather, in a futuristic facility with large culture vessels, in which under highly controlled conditions, with millions of little clocks and sensors, the originally selected cells are transformed into chicken prey that is made into any shape desired because the cultured meat It takes the shape of the container in which it is produced.

They are the first, but they won’t be the last

The FDA itself on its official site informs that the cultivation of living animal cells to create food from their culture “is an emerging area of ​​food science.”

It also advises that “advances in cell culture technology are allowing food developers to use cells obtained from livestock, poultry, shellfish or other animals in food production” and that it is “working with manufacturers to ensure that these products comply with all applicable requirements” of US regulations.

The warning comes from the fact that “man does not live on chicken alone”: there are also initiatives to produce meat without cows and “fish without fish”. The latter is a strong trend in the fishing industry, with projects to produce “alternative seafood” and fish established with booming companies in California, some backed by celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio.

It looks like salmon, but they didn't use a hook or net to bring it to the plate.  Image: wildtypefoods.com
It looks like salmon, but they didn’t use a hook or net to bring it to the plate. Image: wildtypefoods.com

The approval process

Technically what happened on November 16 is that the FDA completed what is called “Prior Consultation”, a procedure that is not the approval for its commercialization, but that paves the way that is missing. Includes evaluation of the company’s production process and cultured cell material produced by the production process, including establishment of cell lines and cell banks, manufacturing controls, and all components and supplies.

The FDA itself explains in its statement that “after our careful evaluation of the data and information shared by the company, we have no further questions at this time about the safety conclusion.”

Basically what is said there is that the authorities consider that a meat product derived from animal cells in culture is safe for human consumption, something that until today only had precedent Singapore’s approval of cultured meats for consumption.

Before being able to market the product, the company must complete the inspection of the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and be duly regulated and labeled.

The perspectives

Global food production is responsible for a third of all greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted by human activity, and the raising of animals for meat is responsible for most of this proportion. Pastures and croplands occupy about 50% of the planet’s habitable land and use about 70% of fresh water.

For this reason, throughout the world there is awareness of the need to think about alternative ways of feeding the 8 billion inhabitants of the planet based on processes that are compatible with the environment. There can be found reason for the approval that Europe has just given to worm meals as human food.

And from there, these new “test-tube meat” industries can position themselves as alternatives that are respectful of the environment and of animal welfare problems in factory farming.

This is how the "pechuguitas" from Upside Foods look.  They will be on the market shortly.  Image: Upside Foods
This is how the “pechuguitas” from Upside Foods look. They will be on the market shortly. Image: Upside Foods

Today at least 150 cultured meat companies are registered worldwide and the sector has been receiving billions of dollars in investment, according to the Good Food Institute.

But the main question to consider is how consumers will respond to “lab meats”. Different substitutes for traditional foods are already on the market, such as vegetable meat and cheese substitutes, cultured cheeses and other initiatives that receive much praise but for now do not have a significant impact on consumption.

The support or intervention that the legislation may have encouraging these alternative consumptions or “penalizing” the traditional ones, such as the recent ban on meat advertising that occurred in the Netherlands, will be crucial.

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