FDA green-lights sale of cultivated chicken in the US—but is it safe to eat?

By Claire Wolters | Fact-checked by Jessica Wrubel
Published June 30, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • The FDA has granted approval to the first two companies in the US to sell cell-cultivated chicken.

  • Cell-cultivated chicken is real meat that is made in a lab rather than through mass farming. Its safety profile is evaluated by the FDA and FSIS, but it may not be risk-free.

  • Still, most people won’t have to weigh the risks and benefits just yet, as the product will head to high-end restaurants before it ends up on grocery store shelves.

The US Department of Agriculture last week gave two California companies the approval to sell cell-cultured chicken, otherwise known as “lab-grown” meat, for eating. The companies, Upside Foods and Good Meat, had been vying to be the first to receive the green light for some time. 

Cell-cultured chicken comes from chicken cells cultivated in a lab—rather than hatched from an egg and later slaughtered—and is thought to be void of the environmental and health side effects of farmed poultry.[]

“Instead of all of that land and all of that water that’s used to feed all of these animals that are slaughtered, we can do it in a different way,” Josh Tetrick, co-founder, and chief executive of Eat Just, which operates Good Meat, told AP News.

The case for lab-grown chicken

Chicken farming comes with a plethora of environmental side effects, including energy and water use from grazing grounds. Farming practices can pose health risks to consumers when droppings get into run-off water, contaminating vegetables and leafy greens and putting people at risk for food-borne diseases like E. coli outbreaks.[] 

“One of the primary motivations behind developing lab-grown meat is to reduce the environmental footprint associated with conventional animal agriculture,” says Michael Wald, DC, a holistic wellness specialist. “By producing meat without the need for large-scale livestock farming, cultured meat has the potential to reduce land and water usage, greenhouse gas emissions, and the use of antibiotics in livestock.”

Cultured meat is not free of risks

But this doesn’t make lab-grown chicken 100% risk-free. It’s important to maintain vigilance around all food we eat, as the farming process isn’t the only way food can become contaminated, says Vanessa Coffman, PhD, director of Alliance to Stop Foodborne Illness, at the food safety group Stop Foodborne Illness.

"Lab-grown meat has the benefit of being from a more controlled environment, as opposed to coming from an open field. However, like any food, there is always the risk of contamination."

Vanessa Coffman, PhD, Director, Alliance to Stop Foodborne Illness

"Similar to produce grown in a hot house, lab-grown meat could become contaminated at a production facility, in a restaurant, or at home if adequate precautions, such as handwashing, separating from raw animal-based meats, and storing correctly are not in place. Just because it isn’t from an animal, doesn’t mean it’s risk free," says Coffman.

Further, because it comes from animal cells, cell-cultured chicken is still technically meat, which may be helpful to keep in mind if you or a patient is following a vegetarian or vegan diet or doesn’t eat meat for religious reasons. In addition, individuals with allergies to traditionally farmed chicken should exercise caution and may want to consult with their healthcare professional or allergist before consuming cell-cultured chicken.  

"As with any new technology, continued scientific investigation and regulatory oversight are crucial for assessing potential risks and benefits."

Michael Wald, DC

“It is always advisable for consumers to stay informed, read reliable sources of information, and consult with healthcare professionals regarding any specific concerns or dietary considerations,” says Wald.

To maintain safety standards, the FDA and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) in 2019 created regulatory material for how to deal with cell cultivated meat should it be approved for sale and consumption.

This includes regulating approved products through a pre-market consultation process, followed up by ongoing inspections of records and facilities. Pre-market consultations are to involve an inspection of the production process, facility, and components used in making the food—such as the cell tissue from the cells being cultivated, according to the USDA. 

How is cell-cultivated meat made?

According to the USDA, cultivating meat from cells is a very complicated process, but it can be explained in a few steps.[]

  1. Scientists select some cells from an animal, in this case chicken, and then screen and grow them into a bank of cells.

  2. Scientists select a number of cells from the bank and put them in an environment such as a large, sealed vessel, combined with nutrients to support further growth and multiplication of the cells.

  3. Scientists wait for cells to multiply significantly—to trillions of cells—and then add in other nutrients or other things like protein growth factors as needed. This helps the cells differentiate and take on the properties associated with muscle, fat, or connective tissue cells.

  4. After the cells have differentiated into different types, they can be harvested together and used in food processing and packaging methods.

Ready to eat?

Don’t rush to include lab-made chicken into your diet just yet. While the product has been approved, it will likely start out in high-caliber restaurant kitchens, and not local grocery store aisles—where those with the highest amounts of cash and curiosity can try first.

What this means for you

The FDA has approved some cell-cultivated for sale, so customers may start seeing the product at some high-end restaurants in the near future. Cell-cultivated chicken is real meat that is grown in a lab which takes away some of the health and environmental concerns of mass farming. Still, it may not be risk-free.

Read Next: Is the Impossible Burger really healthier than beef?
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