You’re entering a very select club,” says Josh Hyman, an apron-clad product developer manning a frying pan. Here, in a 93,000-square-foot laboratory in San Francisco’s Mission district, he has just scrambled me “eggs” made from mung beans and now presents me with a very special next course: a chicken nugget. A single, plump, golden-brown nugget no bigger than a mushroom cap that—once made available to the public—will cost $100, initially.
“We used to say more people have been to the moon than have eaten this,” Hyman says. But in the past several months, the number of people—investors, scientists, journalists—who have sampled Just’s prized nugget has grown, as has the industry that spawned it: clean meat.
A.k.a. motherless meat, slaughter-free meat, in vitro meat, cell-based meat, and the term most disliked by the two dozen companies from Israel to the Netherlands to San Francisco that are competing to be first to market: lab-grown meat. “It doesn’t sound very appetizing,” says Vítor Santo, the biotech engineer responsible for overseeing the selection, incubation, and harvesting of the chicken cells used to create Just’s nugget. “We like ‘cultured meat.’ ”
Whatever it’s going to be called, it is purported to help solve our planet’s most pressing issues: global malnutrition (compounded by an increasingly wealthy world population projected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050 and eat 70 percent more meat than it did in 2005) and climate change—livestock, predominantly cattle, are responsible for 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
And it’s coming. Soon. “Any day now,” says Santo. That is, if you live in Hong Kong or Singapore, where a path to this brave new world is already in place.
Meanwhile, in March, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture formalized their agreement to jointly regulate America’s clean meat industry. Which means that San Francisco, where food and tech and VCs—and the majority of clean meat startups—converge, is likely up next. “By late 2019 or 2020,” predicts Matt Ball of the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that promotes the alternative meat industry.
Apart from poultry, Just has partnered with Japan’s Toriyama ranch to try for an affordable A4 wagyu. S.F.-based New Age Meats is making pork sausage. Meanwhile, Bill Gates–backed Memphis Meats boasts a bevy of products: meatballs, duck, and a chicken strip of its own.
But before clean meat hits plates in the States, there are a few things to figure out—among them, the regulatory details and labeling. (Ranchers have lobbied against the word “meat” appearing on packaging. “But it is meat!” supporters argue.)
And then there are the twin issues of scaling production and lowering the price. (Hmm, dinner for two at Saison or a six-pack of chicken-esque nuggets?)
Hence, cultured meat will be introduced by a handful of high-end chefs long before we see it alongside plastic-wrapped packages of Cargill and Tyson—something those meat producers are clearly banking on: both have invested in clean meat companies.
From urban restaurants to suburban refrigerators: that was the trajectory of Just’s mung bean eggs. And the Impossible Burger—it took just a few years for this plant-based meat alternative, launched in 2016, to go from the esteemed kitchens of David Chang and Traci Des Jardins to the White Castle drive-through and, soon, to all of Burger King’s 7,200 U.S. locations. It will be sold in grocery stores later this year, like Beyond Meat, which went public in May. U.S. sales of plant-based meat are projected to reach $5 billion in 2019.
That figure bodes well for cell-cultured meat, which will arguably be an easier sell to America’s average carnivore, who consumed a record 222.2 pounds of meat last year. Plus, no matter how much people like eating meat, few love that doing so requires slaughtering animals.
If companies want chefs to trend-set, though, they’ll have to make clean meat delicious—and convince them to serve a Frankenstein product they’d never find at the farmers market.
“It gives me the willies, and I just butchered a pig,” says Laurence Jossel of Nopa, a James Beard Award–nominated restaurant that sold more than 30,000 of its beloved $18 burgers last year. “I’m part of the problem,” he admits.
Des Jardins got behind Impossible because she likes its mission and its taste. Cultured meat is another beast. “It’s not something I want to jump all in on,” she says. “But I’d be negligent not to give it a try. It seems like a dramatic step, but we’re on a crash course to devastating our world—it’s time for dramatic steps.”
Still, she adds, “I find the whole idea disconcerting.”
I do too. What sentient human eater in a slow-food state like California wouldn’t? Back in Just’s laboratory, I look at that chicken nugget like it’s some sort of alien disguised as edible, which in a way it is.
But then I take a bite. Breaded in paprika-tinged flour and fried in canola oil, it has a satisfying crunch, a firmish yet juicy texture. It looks like chicken, and it tastes like…chicken, albeit in nugget form.
My kids would never know the difference. And—who knows—someday there might not be one.
Rachel Levin is an ex–restaurant critic who probably ate at least a dozen of the 30,000 burgers Nopa sold last year.