Startup to Serve Up Chicken Strips Cultivated From Cells in Lab

Startup to Serve Up Chicken Strips Cultivated From Cells in Lab

‘Clean meat’ developers say it avoids towering costs of feeding, caring for livestock; Tyson takes note

By JACOB BUNGE Updated March 15, 2017 8:43 a.m. ET

A Bay Area food-technology startup says it has successfully developed the world’s first chicken strip grown from self-reproducing cells without so much as ruffling a feather.

And it pretty much tastes like chicken, according to people who were offered samples Tuesday in San Francisco, before a planned big reveal on Wednesday by Memphis Meats Inc.

Scientists, startups and animal-welfare activists believe the new product could help to revolutionize the roughly $200 billion U.S. meat industry. Their goal: Replace billions of cattle, hogs and chickens with animal meat they say can be grown more efficiently and humanely in stainless steel bioreactor tanks.

Startups including Memphis Meats and Mosa Meat, based in the Netherlands, have been pursuing the concept. They call it “clean meat,” a spin on “clean energy,” and they argue the technique would help the food industry avoid the costs of grain, water and waste-disposal associated with livestock. Scientists from those companies have already produced beef, grown from bovine cells and made into a burger and a meatball. Until now, chicken hasn’t been produced using the method.

Big meat companies have taken notice. Tyson Foods Inc., the largest U.S. meat company by sales, launched a venture-capital fund in December that it says could invest in meat grown cell-by-cell. Kevin Myers, head of product development for Hormel Foods Corp., last fall called the startups’ research into the cultured-meat technology “a good long-term proposition.”

On Tuesday, Memphis Meats invited a handful of taste-testers to a San Francisco kitchen and cooked and served their chicken strip, along with a piece of duck prepared à l’orange style.

Some who sampled the strip—breaded, deep fried and spongier than a whole chicken breast—said it nearly nailed the flavor of the traditional variety. Their verdict: They would eat it again.

Uma Valeti, Memphis Meats’ co-founder and chief executive, said the cell-culture poultry luncheon represented a technological leap, and opened up an important market. “Chicken is the most popular protein in our country,” he said.

U.S. consumers ate an average of 90.9 pounds of chicken apiece in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That is nearly as much as beef and pork combined.

World-wide, about 61 billion chickens are raised for meat annually. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has projected that chicken—relatively cheap to produce and with few religious and cultural barriers—will soar past pork as the world’s most-consumed meat by 2020.

Duck is relevant for a different reason. China, which tops the list in global consumption, consumes 2.7 million metric tons of duck meat annually, nearly 10 times the next-largest consumer, France, according to data from the International Poultry Council. The average Chinese consumer eats 4.5 pounds a year.

The cell-cultured meat startups are a long way from replacing the meat industry’s global network of hatcheries, chicken barns, feed mills and processing plants. But they say they’re making progress. Memphis Meats estimates its current technology can yield 1 pound of chicken meat for less than $9,000. That is half of what it cost the company to produce its beef meatball about a year ago.

The startups, however, aspire to produce meat that can be cost-competitive with the conventionally raised kind. Boneless chicken breast costs an average $3.22 per pound in U.S. grocery stores, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Memphis Meats, whose investors include venture-capital firms SOSV and New Crop Capital, hopes to begin selling its meat commercially by 2021. They already have met with skepticism from livestock groups, who remain confident that carnivores will continue to seek out farm-raised meat.

But the startups have won fans among animal-welfare advocates, including those that typically oppose all meat consumption. Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, has said her group was “very much in favor of anything that reduces or eliminates the slaughterhouse,” and PETA helped fund some early research.


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