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Dinner is served at the Four Seasons in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, and tonight we’re having chicken – but with a twist.
Unlike all other chicken I’ve eaten before, this chicken was grown in a lab in Singapore from meat cells and shipped for a handful of lucky participants at the UN’s COP27 climate summit, in November 2022. Made by California-based Good Meat, this is version three of the cultivated chicken that’s hopefully going to help save the planet.
The US Department of Agriculture ruled on Wednesday that chicken grown from cultivated cells is both safe and legal for sale, which means Good Meat’s chicken could soon be available for sale in restaurants and stores — good news for our planet. We’ve reached a stage in history where the majority of people acknowledge the science of human-instigated climate change and actively want to help – but ideally, most people want to do that without fundamentally changing what they eat.
“We don’t like to talk about meat in the same way we like to talk about fossil fuels,” said Good Meat founder Josh Tetrick as he welcomed us to our al fresco dinner. It’s true that meat can be a tricky subject to broach, even in climate circles. The vegans protesting outside of COP27 every day go largely ignored as everyone files past to work out how to solve the climate crisis by literally any other means possible.
And yet as a global population, reducing our meat consumption is something we need to consider, especially in Europe and North America, if we are to make vital reductions in the emission of greenhouse gases – production of meat is a hefty contributor. There are three ways we can do this, said Tetrick. We can ask people to eat less meat, ask them to eat more plant-based products or make real meat without harming animals. This third option was listed as a recommendation in April’s report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Cultured meat is having something of a moment, with lab-grown chicken receiving FDA approval for the first time on Wednesday. At COP27, alternative proteins have been “on the menu in a big way,” said Bruce Friedrich, president and founder of the Good Food Institute. It’s a trend he hopes will continue now that food is finally being discussed in the context of the climate crisis. “In order to truly meet our global climate goals, we need to address how meat is made,” he said.
This is exactly what Tetrick and his team are doing in their Bay Area lab, and out in Singapore – the first place they can legally sell their products. Their goal? Make cultivated meat so good you’ll want to buy it instead of meat from slaughtered animals.
In order to perfect Good Meat products – starting with chicken, but with beef, pork and fish in the works – Tetrick has brought on board chefs, people who care deeply about food, in order to make something people will love. This feels like the recognition of something important: that food choices are tied up not just with the simple matter of liking and disliking different foods, but in culture, tradition and emotion. “The meat thing is pretty personal,” he said.
This evening, we’ll all have our own personal experiences with Good Meat’s meat and the chance to consider whether, given the choice, we might buy this instead of the endless packs of chicken breasts we tend to reach for at the grocery store.
Getting up close and personal with cultivated chicken
Really, the best tester for lab-grown meat I can think of is my husband, who is more carnivore than omnivore and struggles to recognize the legitimacy of a meal that doesn’t include animal protein. Unfortunately, he is not in Egypt and I am. That means the task falls to me to answer the question of whether Good Meat’s cultivated chicken is convincing to the point where he would consider choosing it over the “real” thing.
First things first, Good Meat isn’t pretending this chicken is a replacement for the whole bird he’d whack in the oven for his signature Sunday roast (although when I raise the possibility of such a thing with Head of Product and chef Chris Jones he gets very excited about trying to re-create chicken on that bone). For that we’ll need to continue buying a high-welfare chicken from our local butcher.
Instead, version three of Good Meat’s chicken is a direct replacement for the kind we tend to cook with at home at least three times per week – breast or thigh meat that we can pop in curry or pasta or a stir fry. And I’m pretty convinced it passes the test.
The first course we’re served involves a chicken kebab that balances just above the lentil and tomato soup it accompanies. This has been done purposefully so that we can taste the meat on its own at first and get a true impression of what it’s like.
Similarly, the third course is a simple piece of grilled chicken resting on top of aromatic rice, soy-glazed mushrooms, broccoli, chili curls and sesame seeds. We gather around to watch it cooking over coals, the char lines forming on the flesh, before we sit down to tuck in. The chicken certainly tastes like the real deal – much better than the processed chicken products you can buy right now in stores. There’s a tenderness to it. If I hadn’t known it was grown in a lab, I might not have picked up on it at all.
It’s brave of Good Meat not to gussy it up with seasoning and sauces, but Tetrick doesn’t seem interested in tricking people. He knows his chicken is a work in progress, involving endless fine-tuning to satisfy both the poultry-hungry people of the world, his fastidious on-staff chefs and himself – the boy from meat-loving Birmingham, Alabama.
As someone who has eaten various meat alternatives – Quorn and its friends – on and off for years, I’m personally ecstatic this product exists. But Good Meat wants honest, detailed feedback about what it can improve upon, so I channel my meat connoisseur husband and try to think what he would say.
Right now, the fibrous texture is still lacking. I think it also needs to be juicier and springier. Instead of bouncing back a little when you sink your teeth into it, it collapses too easily under pressure. Obviously, no one likes tough or rubbery chicken, but it’s lacking some resistance.
I’ve left the best until last, though. Perhaps my favorite dish of the day is dish two of our three-course tasting menu, which features crispy chicken skin. Tetrick admits that he has been snaffling it from the kitchen, and I can understand why. It’s substantive and has the buttery, fatty taste you want from chicken skin. I can’t imagine a more perfect pub snack with a cold pint of beer.
Unfortunately, living in the UK means I won’t be able to buy Good Meat’s chicken skin in my local grocery store anytime soon. The company doesn’t have immediate plans to expand there. After Singapore, the next big markets Good Meat wants its products to be available in are the US, China and the Middle East. The EU will likely be last due its strict regulatory environment.
In the meantime, Good Meat’s chicken will keep iterating. Tetrick knows full acceptance of his product by mainstream society is a ways off. Young people are more open to the idea of cultivated meat, he said. “Genetically engineered,” are the words he hears most often from people resisting it.
People have doubts and hangups because it’s so new, but that won’t be the case forever. “I hope one day no one thinks to ask the questions about this,” he said.