What Is Lab-Grown Meat, And Is It Safe To Eat?

Cell-cultivated chicken has been approved for sale in the U.S. If you have questions, we have answers.
Lab-grown chicken from Upside Foods.
Upside Foods
Lab-grown chicken from Upside Foods.

Meat has long been a staple of diets, but high demand puts a strain on the environment and relies on the slaughtering of animals. Soon, however, new lab-grown meat that will change that will be available in the U.S.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture granted permission to a couple of companies to sell meat produced by cultivating animal cells, which eliminates the processes of both raising and killing livestock. The lab-grown meat will first be available at restaurants and later at supermarkets.

Good Meat, a division of food tech company Eat Just, and Upside Foods both received approval to sell cell-cultivated chicken in the U.S. Good Meat currently sells its products in Singapore.

“This approval marks the first time consumers in the United States can get a chance to taste cultivated meat, which is real meat made with a fraction of the resources required for conventionally produced meat,” said Elliot Swartz, principal scientist of cultivated meat at the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit promoting plant- and cell-based animal product alternatives.

The environmental impact of plant-based, cultivated and fermentation-derived meat shows lower carbon footprints and land use compared to conventional meat production, Swartz said.

More than a third of Americans say environmental sustainability impacts their food and beverage purchasing decisions, and 62% of those say climate-friendliness makes the most difference to them when choosing meat and poultry, according to the International Food Information Council’s 2023 Food and Health Survey.

The USDA decision signals that “new meat products grown from animal cells meet specific food safety and labeling standards to enter the U.S. market,” said Bryan Hitchcock, chief science and technology officer at the Institute of Food Technologists. “Without the approval, these concepts were limited to laboratories and theories.”

You’re probably curious about what lab-grown meat tastes like, how it’s made and when you can buy it. Here’s everything you need to know.

Lab technicians at Good Meat's pilot plant in San Francisco.
Good Meat
Lab technicians at Good Meat's pilot plant in San Francisco.

How is lab-grown meat made?

Cultivated meat — also referred to as cultured, lab-grown or cell-based meat — is produced from the cells of animals in large tanks (similar to how large vats of beer are brewed with yeast). The cells are fed an “oxygen-rich cell culture medium” made up of nutrients, including amino acids, glucose, vitamins, inorganic salts and proteins, according to the Good Food Institute.

The cells, which become the muscle, fat and connective tissue that make up meat, are harvested and packaged into cultivated meat products. The whole process can take two to eight weeks, depending on the type of meat being produced.

Dozens of companies are working on lab-grown meat, including chicken, beef, pork and lamb. So far, the USDA has only approved cultivated chicken.

If you’re wondering whether lab-grown meat is genetically modified (aka a GMO), Good Meat says the cells used to grow its products are non-genetically modified (non-GMO), and these details were included in its safety information provided to the FDA.

What does lab-grown chicken taste like?

It tastes like chicken, according to NPR, which described it as having a chewy texture “closely replicating the texture of chicken breast (minus bones, and tough bits or gristle).”

Cultivated meat is meat, with the same smell, texture and consistency that you’re used to, just “without compromising taste, health or the planet,” Swartz said.

Is lab-grown meat safe to eat?

Along with the USDA approval, the Food and Drug Administration has given a safety nod for the approved companies’ lab-grown meat. These agencies’ requirements are among the most rigorous regulatory standards in the world for food safety, Swartz said.

“During the regulatory review, the safety of cultivated meat is benchmarked based on typical consumption levels in the average consumer diet,” he added. “There is no inherent difference in safety between consuming cultivated meat every day compared to the same amount of a corresponding conventional meat product.”

Still, some people are skeptical about meat produced in a lab. Just 18% of adults say they’re extremely or very likely to try cell-based meat, and 30% are somewhat likely to try it, according to a survey by the Associated Press and NORC at the University of Chicago. The main reasons for the reluctance, according to the survey: it “just sounds weird” and safety concerns.

“Whenever there is a new technology, consumers are often hesitant,” Hitchcock said. “Approval from global regulatory bodies coupled with education and transparency in how products are created and tested is critical to growing consumer confidence.”

A report by the World Health Organization and United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization suggested there could be some safety issues with cell-based foods, including microbial contamination, biological residues and byproducts, and substances that some might be allergic to. It noted, however, that many of these hazards also exist in conventionally produced food.

How nutritious is cell-cultivated meat?

The nutritional information for cultivated chicken was found to be similar to conventionally produced chicken, according to the FDA. But there’s an added bonus: Swartz said lab-grown meat is produced without antibiotics.

The controlled formulation and production of lab-grown meat could potentially be nutritionally superior since the process could modify the fat and amino acids and enhance nutrients, Hitchcock said.

Is it suitable for vegans and others with dietary restrictions?

Lab-grown meat is made from animal cells, so it is actually meat — not a meat alternative. Both Good Meat and Upside Foods say their products are not vegan, vegetarian or plant-based.

And if you’re allergic to conventionally produced chicken, you’ll likely be allergic to cultivated chicken. Good Meat says that its products are not currently kosher or halal, but they have the potential to be certified as such.

A plate of lab-grown chicken from Upside Foods.
Upside Foods
A plate of lab-grown chicken from Upside Foods.

Are lab-grown meat products actually better for the environment?

Cultivated meat doesn’t require slaughtering or raising livestock, which is a major contributor to carbon emissions. Research shows that its production has a lower carbon footprint and land use compared to conventional meat, and could potentially contribute to less air and water pollution.

But many experts say it’s too early to tell what the true environmental impact of cultured meat will be until production scales up. Research by the University of California, Davis suggests that lab-grown meat’s global warming potential could exceed that of conventional beef production, depending on how the industry progresses. (That research has not yet been peer-reviewed.)

There is a potential for a reduced environmental impact with lab-grown meat, Hitchcock said, but it “will be determined on the individual processes, scalability, energy requirements and more.”

How much does it cost, and will most people be able to afford it?

The newly approved cultivated chicken will be pricy at first.

A representative from Good Meat told HuffPost that the company’s production costs are high, but they’re working on making the process cheaper and more efficient, and scaling up production.

Good Meat sells its products at restaurants in Singapore for about the same price as conventional chicken menu items, according to the representative. For instance, one of its chicken sandwiches with fries and mixed greens runs about $14. The company plans a similar approach for the U.S. market.

An Upside Foods representative told HuffPost that while its products will enter the market at a premium price, they plan for prices to equal and eventually be more affordable than conventionally produced meat.

When and where will the lab-grown meat products be available?

Neither brand has announced a timeline of when their product will be available in stores, but they have said they’ll be carried in restaurants first.

Good Meat announced that its first partner will be chef José Andrés, who plans to serve the chicken at his restaurant China Chilcano in Washington, D.C.

Good Meat said its chicken has been featured at fine dining restaurants in Singapore, as well as food stalls, a butcher shop and via a food delivery platform. The U.S. launch will follow a similar pattern, and products will be available at retailers in the future.

Upside is launching via restaurants too, beginning with Bar Crenn in San Francisco, the company said. It hosted a social media contest allowing consumers to enter to win a trip to San Francisco to try the chicken and tour its facility.

The plan is to partner with more chefs and restaurants, and eventually sell at grocery stores, markets and anywhere else meat is sold.

“Our goal is to make Upside products available to anyone who enjoys eating meat,” the Upside representative said. “We want them to be equally suitable for a Michelin-star restaurant or a backyard barbecue.”

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