Just Chicken is hoping to get their product on the market by 2019
Credit: DronG/Getty Images

Chicken nuggets are a delicious gift from God. The only thing keeping them from being a pure joy free of any ethical conundrums is the fact that they’re made from the meat of dead poultry. But what if there was a way to get real(ish) nugget meat without doing any damage to the bird?

Turns out that scenario is closer to becoming a reality than you’d think. Just, a San Francisco-based food startup formerly known as Hampton Creek, says it will be ready to offer its lab-grown chicken nuggets for the public by the end of the year.

Just isn’t simply a new take on the Impossible Burger, which tries to recreate the meat-eating experience through plant-based alternatives. Instead, Just (along with a handful of competitors) are pioneering what they call “clean meat”. Their process involves the relatively harmless plucking of some cells from a living chicken, which are they placed into a bioreactor, given a protein to stimulate cell multiplication, and then fed a culture to encourage growth. Two days later, out comes a viable chicken nugget.

While the idea of cell-based meat cultivated in a laboratory setting sounds like science fiction, it’s well on the way to becoming a culinary reality. A nugget taste test conducted by the BBC at Just’s headquarters describes results as “impressive”, noting that “the skin was crisp and the meat flavoursome, although its internal texture was slightly softer than you would expect from a nugget at, say, McDonalds or KFC.”

The Wall Street Journal also wasn’t a huge fan of the interior, but describes the chicken nugget’s fried chicken skin as “fascinating—crisp and shattery like an Indian papadum, with the concentrated flavor of a chicken bouillon cube.” Though you’d think that the flavor and texture were the result of additives, Just’s R&D chef Thomas Bowman told the journal “the bioreactors did all the work.”

With production costs under control and the formula (almost) figured out, Just has its sights set on getting its faux fowl in some real-world restaurants before 2018 comes to a close. That’ll almost certainly happen outside the US, given that American regulators aren’t exactly sure how to handle in-vitro meat. Beyond the normal approval process, the new cultivation process could present some jurisdictional issues between the USDA (who handles most conventionally grown meat), and the FDA, which is responsible for a broader set of foods.

Still, that hasn’t stopped other countries from seizing the opportunity to test out a prep method that Just and other companies in the space like Memphis Meats see as a huge opportunity to feed the world more sustainably. With the demand for meat outpacing population growth as global standards of living rise, Memphis Meats founder Dr. Uma Valeti sees the ability to up meat production without adding to the livestock population as truly revolutionary.

“We could just literally grow any meat, poultry or seafood directly from those animal cells," Dr Valeti told the BBC. "I think that is probably much bigger than sliced bread."

So will there come a day when our carnivorous urges are satisfied not by slaughtered animals, but with meat grown from a handful (well, less than that, really) of their cells? Who knows. But with global warming a looming existential threat, let’s hope that Just and its competitors in the clean meat space can find a way to get their nuggets to truly taste like chicken.