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The shopping cart | Lab meat at our doorstep

The FDA in the United States has just approved lab-grown chicken. Once approved by the USDA, which will be soon, this chicken will be marketed in the United States. In Canada, few agribusiness groups take this science seriously. But they should.

We knew that sooner or later it would happen, but that time has come. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has just cleared the sale of US-grown chicken, a product of Upside Foods, a San Francisco-based start-up. The company produces meat from animal cells. The product is not yet approved for retail sale. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its Food Safety and Inspection Service must also approve it. But they are all waiting for approval in the coming months. This means that the day when we will see laboratory chicken in the market is coming.

The production process is not that complex. Collecting stem cells from a live chicken or fertilized egg is the first step. The cells are then fed in a laboratory, just like animals are fed amino acids, fatty acids, sugars, trace elements, salts, and vitamins. The main distinction between feeding a live animal and feeding cells is in the size of the feed components; that is all. While the chicken is fed corn, the cells are fed microscopic carbohydrates and protein.

The products are then placed in a cultivator to reproduce a larger number of cells. After three weeks, the product is ready for packaging, shipping, sale, and consumption.

Without sacrificing animals, the product can be made to meet different tastes and nutritional needs. We can grow wings, thighs or breasts, depending on market demand, and limit waste.

Those who condemn these products as fake meat do not understand the science behind cultured meat. Unlike traditional methods, cells are simply replicated in a clean and hygienic laboratory environment, which has significant advantages.

The cost of producing a kilo of chicken in a laboratory is not disclosed. One thing is certain, producing a kilo of chicken will cost less in the laboratory than in traditional production. The shorter production cycle and the reduced probability of foodborne illnesses caused by intestinal pathogens are obvious advantages. Animal diseases like bird flu, which currently cost the poultry industry and consumers a fortune, are also preventable. Risks become much easier to contain with more sanitized production.

Currently, hundreds of companies are developing lab-grown foods (chicken, beef, seafood, coffee, etc.) in the United States and more than a dozen in Canada. Most of these initiatives receive funding from investors who have virtually no experience in agriculture, and their thinking is free from traditional entrenched agribusiness biases. They just see food differently, and industry giants can’t help but follow suit.

The Upside Foods story provides a good example. The company started in 2015, with financial backing from Bill Gates, Cargill, Tyson Foods, and Richard Branson, among others. Whole Foods invested in it in 2020. While Tyson and Cargill are among the largest meat processors in the world, Upside Foods just acquired Cultured Decadence, a farmed seafood company, for $400 million.

If you find eating cultured meat disgusting, chances are you’re over 45. In a recent survey conducted by our lab, 27% of Canadians would try lab-grown foods. But that percentage triples among millennials and millennials, simply because they view these proteins as more sustainable and morally acceptable. An estimated one-third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions come from food production, with some advocating different ways to produce animal protein. Additionally, the UN has warned the world about the risk of keeping highly concentrated animal feed to prevent future pandemics. These risks are still real. We discussed this at length during COP27 last week.

Seeing farm-grown chicken being sold commercially in the United States won’t be long in coming. In Canada, however, with our quota system, poultry producers will surely have a say in the matter. But if farmed meat is marketed in Canada, unlike genetically modified salmon, hopefully it will carry proper labeling so consumers know what they’re buying.

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