Is ‘real’ chicken for the chop?

The falling cost of cultured chicken threatens the future of cheap traditional chicken, but could provide a boost for high-welfare birds. David Burrows reports.

For years lab-based meat has promised much but delivered very little. Until recently. In February, Israeli start-up Future Meat boasted that it had cut the production cost of a cultured chicken breast to $7.50 (about £5.50). “We are proud to be within reach of cost parity with traditional agriculture without any need to resort to genetic engineering,” said Professor Yaakov Nahmias, the company’s founder and chief scientific officer.

Last week, news broke that this has now fallen to $4 (about £2.85), and would drop to $2 (£1.43) by next year. “We will launch a product in the US market in the next 18 months that will have a commercially viable price,” chief executive Rom Kshuk told the Financial Times. Regulatory approval is now the company’s focus.

So, should traditional chicken producers and purveyors be worried?

Already it’s possible to taste meat grown from animal cells in Singapore, which recently became the first country to approve sales of cultured chicken. The nuggets went on sale at a private club and four of them cost $23 (£17). Maker Eat Just said each one was being sold at a loss. “This business is not for the faint of heart,” CEO Josh Tetrick told Politico. “It requires a ton of upfront capital before you see revenue.”

Money is being ploughed into this technology, though, which is driving the price of production down. The Good Food Institute reported that in the first quarter of 2020, cultivated meat companies raised $189m – which was “more than the amount invested in that specific industry’s entire prior history”. In the course of the year they received over $360m in investments, six times that raised in 2019.

As well as price, manufacturers must also reach parity on texture and taste (grocery shoppers, diners and chefs demand it). They are confident they will, or have done so already. This makes an enticing prospect. “Animal-cell-based meat holds the promise of providing meat that is equivalent to animal flesh in every aspect but without slaughtering any animals,” noted Blue Horizon in its report Food for thought: the protein transformation, published in March. “Further developments could even exceed the standards set by animal protein, by removing unhealthy saturated fat, for instance.”

There are also potentially significant environmental benefits, with cellular meat using less land, less water and emitting fewer emissions. However, the climate benefits of cultured meat are not a closed case. As researchers at the University of Oxford noted in 2019: “The climate impacts of cultured meat production will depend on what level of sustainable energy generation can be achieved, as well as the efficiency of future culture processes.”

As such, some might see beef as the meat under most threat from cultured meat, given its huge land, water and carbon footprints. But it’s chicken that could be for the chop. ‘Better’ beef can fight back, with tales of environmental management, extensively reared cattle and the bucolic image of traditional farming. There is a story behind that steak.

Do people care about poultry in the same way? We gobble through 27.5kg a year. Poultry overtook red meat sales for the first time in 2017 and now accounts for over 50% of meat consumption, according to Eating Better, a campaign group. Some 850 million chickens are reared for meat in the UK each year, 95% of which is in intensive indoor units.

Indeed, chicken has become so commoditised and so cheap that against its cultured cousin you wonder what the point of difference is? The welfare benefits of the lab option also become harder to ignore.

It is intriguing therefore that, just as the price parity between real chicken and lab-grown comes within reach, some of the world’s biggest brands are taking welfare issues more seriously. A number of large foodservice firms have signed up to the better chicken commitment, for example. KFC last year published a “chicken welfare progress report”, which offered a peak into what goes on in its supply chain before those 11 secret herbs and spices are added. Then Nando’s launched a new commitment to improve welfare whilst simultaneously lowering greenhouse gas emissions from production.

Research by NPD showed that, in 2017, chicken overtook pork as the most ordered protein in the UK when eating out of home: 16.6% of restaurant visits included the purchase of the white meat. Since then, consumers have also been seeking out higher-welfare chicken, according to Mintel. “The guilt-free indulgence of healthier, free-range chicken has clearly met affluent consumers’ value expectations, even if better chicken costs more than a burger,” said Trish Caddy, foodservice specialist at Mintel.

Whether they prefer a chicken reared on a farm or in a lab is unclear. Research by the University of Sydney and Curtin University, published in September in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition, found that, despite having a great concern for the environment and animal welfare, 72% of Generation Z (18 to 25-year-olds) were not ready to accept cultured meat.

In fact, they view it with “disgust”, said lead researcher Diana Bogueva. “If cultured meat is to replace livestock-based proteins, it will have to emotionally and intellectually appeal to the Gen Z consumers,” she added. Traditional chicken will need to do the same.

Currently, it is fighting on various fronts – from cage-free commitments to the use of soya in feed. The cultured stuff meanwhile is basking in positive headlines. But are we getting carried away by companies touting for millions more of investment in a concept they claim will help save the planet?

Research of media coverage in the UK and US of cultured meat between the years 2013 and 2019 showed positive narratives far outweigh the negative or cautionary ones. “We found an absence of much discussion about the winners and losers at the production level,” the researchers from the University of Oxford and State University of New York wrote in their paper for the journal Climatic Change.

Only 4% of the 255 articles had what they called an “uncertainty narrative”, with the vast majority therefore skipping over the risks of “a few high-tech companies based in the global north playing an exaggerated role in the future global food system and security” or whether some consumers will be priced out of this market. What, also, does scaling up of cultured meat mean for our wider environment and farming communities?

The battle between lab-grown and barn-based chickens is on. As the price of cultured chicken falls, intensively-reared chicken will be under threat. Ironically, this could see high-welfare chicken gain more of a foothold in future.

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