Several years ago, medical researchers at the University of Mississippi decided to turn their attention to fast food chicken nuggets. Instead of eating their to-go orders, they analyzed them in a lab—and after they studied the results, they might’ve realized that they’d made the right decision. One of the nuggets they examined contained 40 percent chicken muscle tissue, and the remaining 60 percent of it was a combination of “generous quantities of fat and other tissue, including connective tissue and bone spicules.” The other was half-muscle, half-blood vessel, -nerve, and -epithelium.
Fast forward five years, and a San Francisco-based startup has promised a cleaner chicken nugget—because its rounded, breaded bites of meat aren’t made from traditional meat at all. Just, Inc. says that it has figured out how to grow an entire chicken nugget by using the cells of a chicken feather.
“We came up with the idea to use one feather from the single best chicken that we could find,” Just said in a YouTube video called ‘Clean Meat: A Vision of the Future.’ “The first thing we need to do is we need to identify a cell that we were going to use as the basic starter material. And then what we need to do is find a food for it to grow in. We have to identify the right set of nutrients that will cause the cells to multiply, and do so quickly and into high densities. Those nutrients are going to be obtained by plants.”
According to the BBC, the feather cell and those plant proteins are placed into a bioreactor, along with a “scaffold to give structure to the product and a culture, or growth, medium to feed the meat.” The entire process takes two days, and the feather donor was still living his best chicken life on a nearby farm. (We believe this more than we believe that Mr. Sniffles, our childhood terrier, is still living on that unnamed, unseen farm in the mountains).
But… what do you call the resulting product? “Ultimately, the meat we’re making will be created in large ‘cultivators’ and will resemble a beer brewery or similar facility used for production of cultured food products,” Andrew Noyes, Just’s Head of Communications, told MUNCHIES. “As such, we call our meat ‘cultured meat,’ which is a much more neutral term than others that have been considered. ‘Lab-grown’ is a red herring and has an inherently negative connotation. Many of the foods we eat and enjoy every day start in a lab setting and are scaled up and commercialized.”
Regardless of the terminology behind it, Just CEO and co-founder Josh Tetrick has already started teasing the chicken’s arrival on Twitter. “400,000 years ago, meat became part of the human diet, and throughout time, human beings have needed to kill the animal to enjoy their meat. First, with spears. Then, with industrial machines,” he wrote. “Get ready for that paradigm to change. #justchicken”
Last week, two BBC reporters were able to sample one of Just’s cultured nugs, and they were pleased that they tasted like, well, conventional nugs. “The skin was crisp and the meat flavorsome although its internal texture was slightly softer than you would expect from a nugget at, say, McDonalds or KFC,” they wrote.
Noyes said that the company is considering a “range of different cell lines from different species” and that those “breaded chicken bites” might not even be the cultured meat’s final form. “Some of our prototypes have also included a savory, spicy chicken chorizo and a filling and flavorful chicken sausage,” he said. “Subject to regulatory considerations, we aim to make our first small commercial sale by the end of 2018. We have not disclosed where we intend to conduct the sale, but it will be in a foodservice setting—a restaurant or handful of restaurants, not retail. It’s unlikely that the sale will be made in the US so we’ve been actively talking with regulators in other parts of the world.”
The particulars of how cultured meats will be sold and regulated in the United States are still being debated. Later this week, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) will hold a joint public meeting to discuss… a lot of aspects about these products. (Just’s Chief Technology Officer, Peter Licari, will be participating in the meeting as well).
As Engadget explains, one of the biggest issues is whether or not clean meats will be allowed to be called ‘meat’ at all. If so, then it will be regulated by the USDA. If not, it will be the FDA’s responsibility. (And don’t even ask how Missouri will handle it.) But Just is optimistic about the possibilities for its lab-grown chicken, and what it could mean for animals, for us, and for the planet itself. “You have this realization that we’ve figured out how life really works, and now we don’t need to cause death to create food,” the company said in that YouTube video.
And you don’t need to get chicken bones involved, either.
UPDATE 10.24.18: In a note to MUNCHIES after this story was published, Andrew Noyes, head of communication for JUST, clarified: "While it is true that cells can be taken from a feather, they can also be collected from a small, harmless biopsy from a live animal, from a cell bank or from other means. Our first product’s cells will not be taken from a feather."
He also added: "The BBC’s reference to the entire process taking “two days” is an oversimplification. It all depends on the cell line, scale of production and type of product desired. The process starts with cell line isolation, then cell bank development and then optimization. Once we identify and select the best cells grown from the isolation, the production step is then quite quick and takes anywhere from a few days to a few weeks depending on the desired outcome."