The vegan food company Just has been growing meat without killing any animals

By Rebecca Firkser
July 31, 2018
Pinghung Chen via Getty Images

If the meat in your sausage came from a mass of cells taken harmlessly from an animal and then cultured in a lab, are you eating real meat? That's basically the gist of Clean Meat, a product currently in development by Just, a company known for its vegan egg and mayonnaise products. Confused? So was I, so after hearing a bit about this company, I needed to learn more.

“[Clean Meat] is real meat made from animal cells instead of from a live animal,” Vitor Santo, Senior Cellular Agriculture Scientist at Just, told me over the phone. “It’s a new technology that enables us to produce real meat in a much more safe and sustainable way, without the typical environmental impact and animal slaughtering than current industrialized meat production has.” Santo explained that by performing a harmless biopsy from an animal—they’re currently working with chickens—scientists at Just are able to harvest live animal cells, lab-feed them, and culture a substance that looks and tastes similar to the original animal protein.

Santo said that the cells are kept in a solution of plant-based vitamins, sugars, and proteins, which feeds the cells, causing them to grow. Santo says they’re not reinventing the wheel: It's a common technique that has been around for many decades in a variety of fields. But they do have a different goal in mind with their cell culturing. “We’re basically mimicking exactly what happens in the animal’s body," he told me. Seems pretty revolutionary to me.

But what about flavor of Clean Meat? Chef Thomas Bowman, a product developer at Just, had the same question when he first started working there. Bowman was worried that the product wouldn’t taste good, or that it wouldn’t taste like much of anything. To his surprise, it was quite the opposite. “We call it ‘clean meat,’ but that’s actually what the flavor is,” Bowman told me. “When we consume animal protein, there are actually a lot of bitter or off flavor compounds than we don’t even really think about it. It’s not until you actually taste Clean Meat than you understand all we get there is this amazing umami chicken flavor.”

“We’re breaking things down on a molecular level; finding nutrients from plants and feeding them to animal cells,” Bowman added. “To grow meat without death is true molecular gastronomy.”

Bowman explained that Just is currently working with the FDA to bring cultured meat to the general public. There’s a lot of red tape right now, mostly because cultured meat is hard to characterize. Historically, the USDA has overseen the slaughter and production of animals in the country, but the Just team noted that since Clean Meat requires no killing, it’s kind of a gray area.

Currently, Just is working with consumers to gauge the general public’s attitude towards cultured meat. Santo and Bowman both said that when it’s available to consumers, the product will be a ground meat, like a sausage or a nugget. They’re hoping to launch the first commercial product by the end of the year. As they continue to work on Clean Meat, Just hopes to mimic a more typical muscle composition, like a chicken breast structure, as well as explore other proteins beyond chicken. As Santo said, “We have a long way to go… but what we’re focusing on right now is how to drive down production cost of these cells in order to make a sustainable, affordable product.”