Until I read the release form I wasn't concerned that the bite of sautéed chicken breast I was about to eat had taken less than three weeks to grow from a few cells inside a laboratory tank to a thick sheet of meat.
Would I assume full responsibility, the form asked, for any personal injury, property damage or death that came from ingesting meat “whose properties are not completely known”?
I was in the airy test kitchen and production centre that Upside Foods opened four months ago in a Bay Area residential shopping district as part of its quest to sell chicken grown from animal stem cells, first in the US and then globally.
The company hopes other foods, including beef, duck and lobster, won’t be far behind.
"We just cannot take for granted that what we eat now is the gold standard," said Dr Uma Valeti, the cardiologist who helped start the company in 2015 after he became convinced that the same medical technology used to grow stem cells to repair a human heart could also grow food.
“We are changing the paradigm,” he said. “We are detaching the meat from the animal.”
Tissue engineers and scientists in several countries are trying to find a commercially viable way to transform animal stem cells into a marbled steak, briny oysters or sushi-grade salmon.
Their work is fed by nearly $3 billion in investments from companies like Archer-Daniels-Midland and the Brazilian meat giant JBS; billionaires like Bill Gates; environmentally-minded celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio; and government agencies including the US department of agriculture and the Qatar Investment Authority.
The global market for what is most commonly known as cell-based or cultivated meat could reach $25 billion by 2030, according to consultants McKinsey. That would be a tiny slice of the projected $1.4 trillion meat market, but one that food companies see as a key player in the fast-growing category called alternative meat.
Growing cells into meat remains the Wild West of food production. Although companies are racing to file for patents, and guard breakthroughs in cell technology like gold, almost a decade after the first cell-grown hamburger was introduced at a packed media event, the notion of buying an engineered steak at the grocery store remains an expensive theory.
Only about 700 people in the world have ever purchased cellular meat – most of it ground, breaded and fried, and all of it in Singapore, which became the first nation to grant regulatory approval in 2020.
And though the US is not far behind (the agriculture department and the Food and Drug Administration could finish writing rules about how to produce and sell cultured meat by the end of the year), all of this is still a long way from the grocery store.
Opponents say the process ignores both culture and nature, and could be scientifically risky, creating potential allergens and untested by-products, along with waste that might be a biohazard. And it ignores the value of time-tested regenerative agricultural practices in favour of unproven claims of environmental gain.
The meteoric rise of highly-processed plant-based proteins has kicked open the door for cellular agriculture. It has been only six years since Impossible Foods introduced a patty made with soy leghemoglobin to mimic beef blood. Now McDonald's is testing a McPlant burger, and KFC is selling plant-based chicken nuggets from Beyond Meat.
Cultivated meat is an entirely different creature. It begins with stem cells from an animal biopsy, an egg or even a feather that multiply rapidly in a stainless steel tank called a bioreactor or cultivator. The cells feed on a complex broth that contains nutrients like carbohydrates and amino acids, and some type of growth factor, to become muscle, fat or connective tissue. Taste and nutrition are controlled by cell selection and the broth they grow in.
And the taste? In the Upside Food test kitchen I sampled a slightly grainy chicken pâté and a perfectly round breakfast patty blended with plant-based proteins that fried up nicely. Generous seasoning masked the flavour of the meat.
The breast I ate came from tissue that had grown short meat fibres and had been pressed into plastic moulds to approximate the size and shape of a small boneless breast. It had less chew but much more flavour than a typical grocery-store breast. The biggest difference was how the meat reacted in a pan. As it browned, the surface looked more like coarsely ground meat than whole muscle.
What to call meat grown in tanks remains a battle on both sides of the Atlantic. The United States Cattlemen's Association petitioned the agriculture department in 2018 to limit the definition of meat and beef to products derived from animals born, raised and harvested in the traditional manner. The request was denied.
States have jumped in. In Georgia cell-cultured products have to be labelled "lab-grown," "lab-created" or "grown in a lab".
Most producers prefer the term cultivated meat, or cultured meat.
Isha Datar is the executive director of New Harvest, a non-profit institute that funds open, public research into cellular agriculture. In an October TED Talk that has been viewed 1.6 million times, she contends that growing cells for meat offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fix a broken agricultural system. It could be as revolutionary, she says, as the transition from hunting to farming.
But she cautions that investors and companies have too much control over a process that, like making beer or cheese or growing vegetables, shouldn't be treated as intellectual property. – This article originally appeared in The New York Times