What's the deal with lab-grown meat? Expert answers our FAQ

Two cultivated-meat companies can now sell their lab-grown chicken products in the U.S. But what does it taste like? Is it more ethical? And is this the end of factory farming as we know it?

Two cultivated-meat companies — Eat Just and Upside Foods — recently got full approvals from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to sell their lab-grown chicken products in the U.S. The federal green light comes months after both companies obtained confirmation from the Food and Drug Administration that their cell-cultivated meat was safe for human consumption.

Both companies are starting small, so it will be a while before you can buy their products at the grocery store. Upside Foods plans to sell its cultivated chicken to a San Francisco restaurant called Bar Crenn, while Eat Just’s brand, Good Meats, is collaborating with a Washington, D.C., restaurant owned by the celebrity chef and restaurateur Jose Andrés.

A platter of cooked, sliced cultivated chicken sprinkled with red cabbage, with a side of sour cream.
Upside Foods' cultivated chicken. (PR Newswire/AP Photo)

So is lab-grown meat the way of the future?

To better understand how cultivated meat could impact the meat industry, Yahoo News spoke with Bill Winders, a sociology professor specializing in food and agriculture at Georgia Tech and co-editor of “Global Meat: Social and Environmental Consequences of the Expanding Meat Industry.” Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Yahoo News: How will this change the way we eat meat — and food in general?

Bill Winders: I don't think that it's going to change that much about the way that we eat meat or food in general, in part because initially, it'll be a really small contribution to meat production overall in the United States. In 2021, we produced about 21 million metric tons of chicken. That's about 46 billion pounds of chicken in that one year. So Upside Foods, whatever they produce over the next year or five years — or even the next decade — is not going to be that significant in view of the overall meat industry.

What about in the long term? Is this the beginning of the end of factory farming as we know it?

From 2014 until today, the consumption and marketing of plant-based meat alternatives like Impossible and Beyond Meat has increased significantly. But it hasn't changed meat production patterns. In fact, the big meat companies, like Tyson and others, actually got into plant-based meat. Part of that is because they saw that plant-based meats were a niche market that was profitable, and so they got into that market and made sure, essentially, that wasn't going to interfere with the profits that they were making in traditional factory farming.

So I wouldn't be surprised to see the same thing happen with cultivated meat — that once it becomes profitable and there's a market niche for it, the big meat companies would get in on it as well. And in some ways, that can help to guard against those alternatives: like cultivated and plant-based meat impinging on what big meat companies really find their profits in — which is traditional or factory-farm industrial meat production.

A technician in a white coat, blue nitrile gloves and a blue hair net pushes a trolley past an array of gleaming vats.
Cultivation tanks at the Upside Foods plant, where lab-grown meat is cultivated, in Emeryville, Calif., on Jan. 11. (Peter DaSilva/Reuters/File Photo)

So could cell-cultivated meat be in competition with plant-based meat alternatives, like Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat?

Plant-based meats have increased faster than I think the lab-grown meats will. Plant-based meats use pea protein or soy, and there's lots of soybeans and other field crops that can be used for those purposes, so it was much easier for them to scale up to production relatively quickly. But lab-grown meats have the added complication that the process to produce lab-grown meat is very expensive. And it's a very capital- and technology-intensive process, in a way that the plant alternatives are not.

Does lab-grown meat taste different from traditional meat? Is it any more or less nutritious?

I've never tried lab-grown meat, but my understanding is that it tastes relatively the same. What I've read is that sometimes the color is maybe a little bit paler, a little bit different from traditionally produced meat. But otherwise, in terms of nutrition and in terms of taste, I think that it's almost indiscernible.

Will there be regulations around disclaiming that chicken is lab-grown? Or could I be served cell-cultivated chicken at a restaurant and not even know it?

The recent USDA ruling was that lab-grown chicken will be labeled as "cell-cultivated." So once it hits stores, when consumers go to the meat department at a grocery store and they're looking at different meats, if they see one that's labeled "cell-cultivated," then it's lab-grown.

But I don't know how that ruling affects restaurants serving it. I assume that since it's hitting restaurants first, and there are chefs that are teaming up with different companies like Upside Foods to sell lab-grown chicken in their restaurants, that they're going to advertise it, because they want people to know that they can eat this lab-grown meat.

A diner cuts off a piece of an unctuous looking piece of pan-fried cultivated chicken breast with cherry tomatoes and herbs.
Cultivated chicken breast created at the Upside Foods plant. (Peter DaSilva/Reuters/File Photo)

For people who don't eat meat for ethical reasons, could cultivated meat be considered a more ethical alternative?

It's complicated. Certainly for people who are vegetarian or vegan for ethical reasons that involve how the animals are raised and the fact that they're slaughtered, lab-grown meat would appear to get around those kinds of issues, because there's no slaughtering involved, and the animals aren't raised in small cages. However, for many vegetarians and vegans, it's the consuming of animals that's really the issue, so I expect that lab-grown meat won't be appealing.

I think the bigger appeal may be for people who eat meat and may be aware of the issues of inhumane treatment or may be conflicted about the slaughtering of animals when they think about it. This may be a way to be able to continue the same dietary choices that they've made without having that inhumane treatment or other violence toward animals.

Can cultivated meat help solve some of the bigger problems facing us today, like world hunger or the environmental impact of factory farming?

In terms of world hunger, it's really difficult to imagine a situation in which lab-grown meat would alleviate world hunger or would increase access to meat, in part because it's going to be expensive for the foreseeable future. I think that lab-grown meat, initially, it's really clear how it's geared toward a niche market that's really upscale in the United States, because it's centered in San Francisco, it's centered in particular restaurants with popular chefs, and I haven't heard any proponents of lab-grown meat suggest that it would have those effects.

Environmentally, it's not clear how much energy cultivated-meat production is going to use versus industrial meat production. There may be environmental trade-offs. The methane that's produced and the CO2 emissions from industrial meat productions are quite large, and eliminating those or reducing those will benefit the environment a lot, but we do need to take a moment to consider how much energy and emissions will be produced with lab-grown meats.