The Agriculture Department approved the production and sale of laboratory-grown meat for the first time on Wednesday, clearing the way for two California companies to sell chicken produced from animal cells.
It will likely be years before shoppers can buy lab-produced meat in grocery stores. But the government’s decision will eventually allow the sale of lab-produced meat across state lines after passing federal inspections.
The decision is a milestone for companies making cell-grown meat, along with consumers looking for alternatives to chickens bred in a factory farm and slaughtered.
Supporters of alternative proteins along with the companies that sought federal approval — Upside Foods and Good Meat — celebrated the news as pivotal for the meat industry and the broader food system at a moment of growing concern about the environmental impact of meat production and its treatment of animals.
“This approval will fundamentally change how meat makes it to our table,” Dr. Uma Valeti, the chief executive and founder of Upside Foods, said in a statement. “It’s a giant step forward towards a more sustainable future — one that preserves choice and life.”
The decision will make the United States the second country in the world, after Singapore, to authorize the production and sale of lab-grown meat. Bruce Friedrich, the president of the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit focused on cell- and plant-based meat, said U.S. approval was a critical step for the industry, adding that “the world does look to the United States’ food safety approval system, and now lots of governments will follow.”
Supporters of cultivated meat say the product has better outcomes for the environment, food safety and animal welfare. But skeptics are wary of scientific and safety risks and say the purported environmental benefits are unproven. Difficulties remain over how to increase the product for mass consumption.
About 100 companies worldwide, including dozens in the United States, focus on the production of cultivated meat, according to Mr. Friedrich. The industry was valued at about $247 million in 2022, according to the market research firm Grand View Research, and could grow to $25 billion by 2030, the consulting firm McKinsey & Company projected.
Lab-grown meat begins with cells taken from an animal. Those cells are then fed water and salt and nutrients like amino acids, vitamins and minerals. The cells then multiply in large tanks called cultivators or bioreactors. When harvested, the product is essentially minced meat, which is then formed into patties, sausage or fillets. The meat contains no bones, feathers, beaks or hooves and does not need to be slaughtered.
Upside Foods and Good Meat declined to elaborate on their current production capacity, but Dr. Valeti said last year that the company will eventually grow to “tens of millions of pounds of product.”
That’s chicken feed compared with the more than 300 million tons of meat consumed around the world — a number that is only expected to grow.
Both companies will begin selling chicken to American consumers through partner restaurants: Upside Foods at Bar Crenn in San Francisco, and Good Meat at an undisclosed location operated by the chef José Andrés in Washington. The model allows both consumer education and feedback, spokesmen for the companies said.
After the initial trial run, both companies also anticipate scaling up production and expanding to other types of meat. (Beef, with its higher fat content and more complex flavor, is harder to replicate.)
Still, questions linger over the regulatory framework around cultivated meat and consumer attitudes toward the products.
Many cattlemen and agriculture groups have cried foul over calling the lab-grown variety “meat” and have been lobbying legislators to safeguard the word. The Food Safety and Inspection Service, the Agriculture Department agency tasked with inspecting conditions at processing facilities, is still drafting regulations on how food products derived from animal cells should be labeled. For now, the two California companies will call their products “cell cultivated chicken,” a label that the agency approved last week.
Semantic and consumer opinion battles aside, Mr. Friedrich warned that the cultivated meat products, when they eventually hit grocery shelves, will be expensive compared with conventional sausages and patties — similar to how renewable energy was initially costlier than oil and gas.
Nonetheless, he is confident that “cultivated meat will sell itself.”