A new threat to the chicken industry is being cultivated

How serious a threat do laboratory-cultured meats and plant-based alternatives pose to chicken farmers and other meat producers, and how soon?

The answer would appear to be: not yet, but watch this space.

Globally, the alternative meat industry has developed more slowly than had been expected, but it will now be actively promoted by the United States government.

According to a report in The Guardian, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved as safe to eat a chicken product grown from a chicken cell by a California company called Upside Foods.

In addition, the FDA has said it is ready to approve other laboratory-grown foods, including meat and fish.

“The world is experiencing a food revolution, and the US Food and Drug Administration is committed to supporting innovation in the food supply,” said FDA commissioner Roberg Califf.

The Guardian said the FDA support “could open the floodgates to a new food market that backers say is more efficient and environmentally friendly than traditional livestock farming”.

The threat is being noted by the global poultry industry. A report in the latest edition of Poultry World says cultured and alternative proteins are under the spotlight.

“Cultured protein will reach price parity with traditional meat cuts in the next three years, but the process of getting the same texture and taste is likely to take longer,” it said. It quoted Benjamina Ballag, founder and CEO of Higher Steaks Limited, as saying the costs of producing laboratory-cultured meats were falling rapidly.

The journal said that most governments were not giving priority attention to the emerging alternative meat industry. Earlier forecasts that the cultivated meat market would take 10% of the global meat market by 2030 “currently seem unlikely”, it said.

This week the New York Times reported on the decline of Beyond Meat, once a flagship for a burgeoning alternative meat industry. The company’s share price has declined precipitously and it plans to lay off 20% of its staff.

The newspaper says the debate is whether the problem is company-specific, or indicative of wider problems for plant-based meat suppliers. An analyst said predictions of exploding growth year by year have not materialised.

“We’re positive on the future for plant-based meat, but this is a 20- to 25-year story,” he said. “It’s not going to happen in three to five to 10 years.”

It may be a while before the South African chicken industry finds that it is being threatened not by bird flu, or by imports, but by cultivated and plant-based meat.