Lab-grown chicken is now USDA approved—if you can afford it

The jury is still out on how sustainable cultured meat really is.
Close up of GOOD Meat lab-grown chicken on table

The USDA cleared to startups to begin selling their lab-grown chicken to consumers. Eat Just, Inc.

The US Department of Agriculture granted two startup companies permission to begin selling cell-cultivated chicken to American consumers, marking a major moment for the global lab-grown meat industry. According to CNBC on Wednesday, GOOD Meat and UPSIDE Foods have already received their first customer orders, with regulators planning to begin inspecting cultured meat facilities according to the same health codes and standards they apply to standard slaughterhouses and meat processing plants.

In a statement released on Wednesday, Eat Just and GOOD Meat CEO and co-founder Josh Tetrick called the approval “a major moment for our company, the industry and the food system,” and thanked the FDA and USDA for their “rigor and thoughtfulness.” UPSIDE Foods CEO and founder Uma Valenti, meanwhile, described the decision in a separate announcement as “a giant step forward towards a more sustainable future—one that preserves choice and life.”

[Related: We’re one key step closer to buying lab-grown burgers.]

Unlike plant-based meat alternatives, cultured meat is created by injecting animal fat or muscle stem cells into a culture medium, then stimulating the cell growth via a bioreactor. After the process is complete, the final result is a product developers contend is little different from naturally grown and harvested meat. In 2020, GOOD Meat obtained approval to sell cultured meat to consumers in Singapore.

Although the USDA’s approval was all-but-certain after regulators’ cleared UPSIDE Foods’ cultured poultry as safe for human consumption last November, the actual go-ahead marks a symbolic moment for the industry as consumers’ interest in plant-based meat products appears to wane. In the years’ since the commercial introduction of plant-based meat alternatives, critics have increasingly highlighted plant-based products’ own environmental pitfalls and health concerns.

[Related: How to enjoy fake meat in a way that actually helps the planet.]

As CNBC notes, however, cultured meat faces its own challenges to widespread adoption, including scalability issues such as from financing and building large enough bioreactors to meet demand. And then there’s the question of whether or not even lab-grown meat will prove more sustainable than existing industries—multiple studies in recent years indicate such alternatives may even be worse for the environment thanks to overall energy requirements and greenhouse gas emissions.

Additionally, production costs indicate early prices will remain extremely high. Both UPSIDE and GOOD Meat’s first announced customers have been a three-Michelin-star chef, as well as an international restaurateur.

In spite of all this, however, there’s no word on when those mammoth meatballs will hit grocery stores.