The Cost of Lab-Grown Chicken Dropped by More Than Half in 2021
2021 saw significant rises in consumer prices across all sorts of goods, one of them being food. Amid supply chain complications, labor shortages, and plant closures, meat prices shot up, in some cases to double what they’d been a year prior. Chicken was no exception, with consumers and restaurants paying up to 125 percent more than the typical baseline price.
There may soon be an unexpected solution, and it’s one that comes with the added bonuses of not harming any animals and having a far smaller environmental footprint. Last week Israeli company Future Meat Technologies announced that it’s producing cultured chicken breasts at a cost of $7.70 per pound, which comes out to about $1.70 per breast.
These figures are significant for a couple reasons. First is the speed with which the company has brought down its production costs. Just six months ago, Future Meat’s cost of making cultured chicken was around $18 per pound. To be well below half that in less than a year’s time means the company’s methodology is working better than even they expected; the cost reduction actually exceeded an 18-month projection the company put out in May.
Secondly, while $7.70 per pound is still not at price parity with farmed chicken, it’s getting closer. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics listed the average price of a pound of chicken in November 2021 at $3.62. This already factors in costs like shipping and packaging, so the $7.70 figure will need to go down by more than 50 percent. But given the pace of reductions thus far, it seems reasonable to think that could happen within another year or two.
One significant factor that helped pull costs down was the company’s launch of a new factory this past June. The facility in Rehovot, Israel was the world’s first dedicated to producing cultured meat at scale, and makes burgers as well as chicken. At the time of the factory’s opening, Future Meat was producing cultured chicken breasts at a cost of $3.90 apiece, which broke a price record in the industry.
Unlike plant-based meat, which isn’t really meat at all and uses only plant-derived ingredients, cultured meat is made from animal cells. Cells are extracted from the animal’s tissue and fed with nutrients, oxygen, and moisture while being kept at the same temperature they’d be at inside the animal’s body. The cells divide and multiply then start to mature, with muscle cells joining to create muscle fibers and fat cells producing lipids.
Future Meat calls its process “media rejuvenation,” with animal cells fermenting in stainless steel vats as waste products are continuously removed to keep the physiological environment constant. The company says its method leads to yields 10 times higher than the industry standard while generating 80 percent less greenhouse gas emissions, using 99 percent less land and 96 percent less freshwater all while delivering the same nutritional value as traditional meat.
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“We have consistently demonstrated that our single-cell technology and serum-free media formulations can reach cost parity faster than the market anticipates,” said Yaakov Nahmias, Future Meat’s founder and president. “We also demonstrated that our proprietary media rejuvenation technology enables cell densities greater than 100 billion cells per liter, translating to production densities 10-times higher than the industrial standard.”
It’s possible (rather, it’s likely) that the big drop in cost for chicken breast production was brought about primarily by the new factory and the scale it enabled, and cost reductions could plateau in the coming months. But Future Meat will have plenty of money to work with as it figures out how to further cut costs; last week the company announced it had raised $347 million in Series B funding, the largest investment ever made in cultured meat. Part of that will go towards starting construction on a second large-scale production facility, this one located in the US. A specific site has not yet been announced, but Future Meat plans to break ground on the new plant in 2022.
Factory farming isn’t going away anytime soon, but starting to supplement its meat with cultured meat will be a good first step towards reducing both the prices consumers pay for meat and the meat industry’s negative impact on the environment. There will still be the questions of getting regulatory approvals and waiting for consumer sentiment to catch up with cultured meat technology, but these will come with time.
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