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Lab-Grown Meat Is on Shelves Now. But There’s a Catch

May 16, 2024 8:36 AM

Lab-Grown Meat Is on Shelves Now. But There’s a Catch

A store in Singapore is selling lab-grown chicken, but it contains only 3 percent animal cells.

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Cultivated meat is coming to a store near you. Well, not near you, exactly. Unless you live near Huber’s Butchery in Singapore. If you do happen to live there, then on May 16 you could be one of the first people in the world to buy cultivated meat directly from a store shelf.

This is the first time that cultivated meat—no-slaughter meat with real animal cells grown in bioreactors—has been sold at retail anywhere in the world. This novel meat has previously been available only in tiny proportions at a handful of mostly high-end restaurants in the US and Singapore. Even cultivated meat superfans would be lucky to nab a spot at one of the few sittings offered.

Now cultivated meat is available in one store in Singapore. There is a catch, however: The chicken on sale at Huber’s Butchery contains just 3 percent animal cells. The rest will be made of plant protein—the same kind of ingredients you’d find in plant-based meats that are already on supermarket shelves worldwide.

This might feel like a bit of a bait and switch. Didn’t cultivated meat firms promise us real chicken? And now we’re getting plant-based products with a sprinkling of animal cells? That criticism wouldn’t be entirely fair, though. As I wrote last year, it was always likely that the first products to hit shelves would be full of plant protein. The costs of brewing animal cells are simply so high that the quickest way to get something to market that even approaches a reasonable price is to make up a substantial portion with plants.

It’s not even the case that this means watered-down taste. I’ve tried pâtés, sausages, and meatballs that blend animal cells with plant protein. All of them had a decent amount of spices and flavorings chucked in for good measure, and all of them were delicious. The meat I tried, however, had a much higher ratio of animal cells than the chicken on sale in Singapore, which is made by Californian cultivated meat firm Good Meat, a subsidiary of Eat Just.

At 3 percent animal cells, it’s hard to know whether Good Meat’s chicken will be significantly—or even noticeably—better than the plant-based alternative. The company says that sensory tasting has yielded “exceptional feedback” on taste, texture, and appearance, which doesn’t tell us much about how the product compares to real or plant-based chicken—just that the company selling it is confident people will like it.

The success or failure of Good Meat’s chicken also isn’t a great indicator of the cultivated meat industry’s future. Shoppers’ enthusiasm for plant-based meat is already flagging, so if Singaporeans don’t seem keen on Good Meat’s chicken, it could be written off as rejection of products that are mostly plant-based. Startups that are pushing ahead with much higher cell ratios will say it’s evidence that the real benefits of going cultivated kick in only when you’re talking about products that are 60, 70, 80 percent animal.

It’s also completely plausible that the chicken will fly off the shelves. Even though it contains only 3 percent animal cells, it’s likely that production will be extremely limited. Eat Just, which owns Good Meat, has been in serious financial difficulties for some time, and is under serious pressure to cut costs and show itself to be a profitable business. At very small scales, even a little bit of shopper curiosity can look like a huge success, even if in reality it tells us very little about the demand for cultivated meat with a tiny proportion of animal cells.

There’s also the question of the price. Good Meat’s chicken will sell at S$7.20 ($5.35) for a 120-gram portion of frozen chicken—a hefty premium over similar cuts sold in Singapore supermarkets. We already know that high prices are one of the major things that put people off buying plant-based meat, so if shoppers are lukewarm about Good Meat’s chicken, some might argue that it’s a problem with the price, not the product.

In a strange way, none of this really matters. There’s a good chance that Singaporean shoppers aren’t the real audience for Good Meat’s chicken. They’re actually the players, hopefully putting on a show for the people who really matter right now: investors.

After an initial wave of enthusiasm, cultivated meat startups have had a hard time raising money as of late. The industry raised $226 million in 2023—down from $922 million in 2022, and a larger dip than the broader industry-wide downturn in venture funding. Eat Just in particular is embroiled in an expensive legal case with a former supplier and under pressure to bring in new money to keep things going.

Enthusiasm for the industry has also been dampened by laws in Florida and Alabama banning the sale of cultivated meat. Launching in a retail store gives Good Meat a positive story to sell to investors, who will hopefully stump up the injection of cash that the industry needs to keep grinding forward.

As with the high-end restaurant launches in the US that quickly petered out, we shouldn’t expect each milestone to lead neatly on to the next—one retail store, then 10, then 20. The industry is still at an extremely early stage, and these experiments are as much about catching the attention of investors as they are about stoking consumer expectations.

It might be the case that mostly-plant-based chicken fillets don’t capture the enthusiasm of investors and consumers. Other startups in the space are trying to sidestep the cost problem by aping high-end products like sushi-grade salmon or steak. Others still are leaning into the weirdness of it all: Australian startup Vow is selling cultured quail parfait at a restaurant in Singapore. Which of these approaches succeed—or whether any of them will—is still too early to tell.

All of this isn’t to be downbeat on cultured meat. It’s just that it’s too soon to know whether the industry is on track to solve major difficulties around bringing down the cost of its brewed animal cells, and whether cultivated meat can wow consumers in a way plant-based meat hasn’t managed to. For answers to those questions, we’ll have to wait a long while.

Matt Reynolds is a senior writer at WIRED, where he covers climate, food, and biodiversity. Before that he was a technology journalist at New Scientist magazine. His first book, The Future of Food: How to Feed the Planet Without Destroying It, was published in 2021. Reynolds is a graduate of… Read more
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