A few weeks ago, I sunk my teeth into a chicken nugget—the first one I’d eaten since I became a vegetarian 19 years ago. The tastes took me back to the fast food of my childhood. The crunchy exterior contrasted with the soft white flesh underneath, livened by a dash of hot sauce.
But this wasn’t the chicken of my boyhood, however much it tasted like it. The flesh didn’t come from a bird with feathers, a beak and a brain. Instead, chicken cells were steeped in a nutrient solution and grown in a bioreactor in a Singapore manufacturing facility. The cells were cultivated from those of an actual bird, but no poultry were killed to make the meal.
What was once a philosophical thought-experiment for vegetarians—when the technology arrived, would we eat “kill-free” meat?—is now a question some of us are actually having to contend with.
Cultured meat has been in development for years, but it only became commercially available in December after Singapore, the city-state of 5.7 million people where I live, became the first country in the world to authorize its sale. So far, supply is limited to a private social club that offers a dish of cultured chicken nuggets for $23 and has served it to around 200 people so far. The chicken is supplied by Eat Just Inc., a San Francisco food-tech company that set up a growing facility here and won regulatory approval.
For vegetarians like me, lab-grown meat’s greatest attribute is that it doesn’t require raising animals for slaughter.
The production process is still linked to animal slaughter. One ingredient of the nutrient solution that nurtures Eat Just’s chicken cells is bovine serum, harvested from butchered cattle. The company says it has developed an animal-free alternative that it plans to use, pending a nod by Singapore’s regulators.
I hadn’t known about the serum before my dinner. If I had, I may still have tried the chicken as a one-off, because I’m curious about the product. In the future, I will only consume cultured meat that doesn’t use byproducts of animal slaughter.
At least a dozen other companies are developing cultured meat, with offerings ranging from Wagyu beef to salmon and kangaroo. Some have received investments from major meat-supply companies like
Tyson Foods Inc.
and Cargill Inc. Companies behind the research say that cultivated meat has many advantages, not least that it can be grown indoors using limited space and, in Eat Just’s case, without antibiotics.
For vegetarians like me, lab-grown meat’s greatest attribute is that it doesn’t require raising animals for slaughter. Peter Singer, a philosophy professor at Princeton whose 1975 book “Animal Liberation” popularized the term speciesism to describe human beings’ disregard for animals, has said that although he’s been a vegetarian for 50 years, he would be open to trying cultured meat when it becomes available.
“I’m excited by it because I think it offers the possibility of dramatically reducing the suffering of tens of billions of animals every year,” Mr. Singer said in an interview. “I hope that people will eat it.”
Not all animal advocates share his enthusiasm. Some worry that cultured meat will end up reinforcing the idea that humans need and deserve meat. But I was thinking along similar lines as Mr. Singer.
I became a vegetarian at age 11, when my family went on vacation to Italy and I saw a butchered cow displayed head-to-tail in a meat market stall. In suburban New Jersey, where I grew up, an act of imagination was required to connect the plastic-wrapped slabs of meat in grocery aisles to the slaughter of a fellow mammal. Not so in Florence. I stared at the cow horrified, and decided it was wrong to kill animals for food.
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When the evening for my recent chicken meal finally arrived, I wasn’t sure that I would be able to put the food in my mouth. I was seated in a darkened dining room with a table of omnivores who were interested in the new technology but unconcerned by the idea of consuming flesh.
When the nuggets were served—some on a Chinese-style bao, others on an American-style waffle—eating them felt natural. I devoured the entire portion, each bite a little revelation.
I wasn’t the only vegetarian who enjoyed it. About a week after my meal, Maryanna Abdo, a 40-year-old Singapore-based managing director of a social impact advisory firm, tried the chicken after 13 years of being a vegetarian.
“I’m a person who hasn’t eaten a Chicken McNugget in, I don’t know, 10, 15 years,” Ms. Abdo said. “They’re pretty damn good,” she said of the Eat Just version. Ms. Abdo said that she would consider eating cultured meat regularly in the future if it didn’t rely on animal products like bovine serum.
Her husband, James Crabtree, 43, had also given up meat almost 15 years ago and is a vegan. He was at the meal but decided to abstain from eating it himself, in part because he doesn’t miss the taste of flesh, he said. “The point of this stuff is not so much to give vegans the chance to eat meat, it’s more to give people who like eating meat the chance to eat something that is identical to meat but that has very few of the consequences,” he said.
‘I’m vegan. Except I eat our chicken.’
Joy Yuan, a 29-year-old Singaporean vegan food blogger, didn’t attend a chicken-nugget dinner but had a similar reaction to the idea of eating cultured meat. Even some imitation meat products are too “meaty” for her. “I can only imagine real animal flesh, even if it’s cultivated in a lab, would taste even stronger,” she said, adding that some vegans whose only concern is animal cruelty might go for it.
the chief executive of Eat Just, said that in the future, a new term might be invented for vegetarians and vegans who dine on cell-cultivated meat. He has yet to come up with one, though.
Mr. Tetrick grew up in meat-loving Birmingham, Ala. Despite being a vegan for around 15 years, he said that he still finds himself attracted to meat. “If I walk by a barbecue I want to see what’s cooking,” he said.
Recently he’s been satisfying some of his cravings. “I’m vegan. Except I eat our chicken,” Mr. Tetrick said. In the coming years, that might start sounding less strange.
Write to Jon Emont at [email protected]
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