Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Ellen R. Delisio headshot

Hold the Chicken: KFC Is Testing Lab-Grown Nuggets

KFC is jumping into the lab-grown meat sector, with expectations that once the final product launches this fall, the results will be finger-lickin’ good.

Image: KFC says it’s embarking on a trial run of lab-grown chicken nuggets as alternative to its popular popcorn nuggets, shown above.

The Colonel and KFC are jumping into the laboratory meat (also known as “cultivated” or “clean” meat) sector, with expectations that once the final product launches, the results will be finger-lickin’ good.

KFC has jumped on the lab-grown meat bandwagon

The fast-food giant says it is collaborating with Russian company 3D Bioprinting Solutions to develop the first lab-created chicken nuggets using 3D-printing technology. The process involves employing additive bioprinting technology using chicken cells and plant material, with the final product having the taste and texture of chicken meat. For its part, KFC will provide the coating and the Colonel’s special blend of herbs and spices.

“Our experiment in testing 3D bioprinting technology to create chicken products can also help address several looming global problems,” said Raisa Polyakova, general manager of KFC Russia and Commonwealth Independent States (CIS), in a prepared statement.

If successful, the 3D-printed nuggets could become a step toward addressing nutritional, environmental and economic issues related to food, including consumers' desire for more healthful foods, the growing demand for meat alternatives and the pressure for more sustainable methods of food production, particularly when it comes to meat.

The long-term environmental benefits of producing lab-grown meat

Lab-grown meat does not require land and other resources, such as water, needed to raise livestock, and spares the lives of animals. It also reduces pollution by taking animal waste out of the mix and creates products free of the substances used in animal husbandry. The meat is grown in labs using muscle cells from animals.   

The company touted a study published a decade ago in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, which concluded that the cultivation of meat from cells instead of relying on the slaughtering of animals has only minimal environment impact. The practice could also slash energy consumption by more than half, reduce greenhouse gas emissions 25-fold, and use 100 times less land than conventional meat production.

KFC is moving into a rapidly expanding sector, one in which the number of investors and companies trying to create and market clean meat keeps growing. Clean meat companies raised $77 million in venture capital in 2019, according to a report from the Good Food Institute (GFI). As it becomes clearer that cellular agriculture is the future of animal meat production, increasingly more investors, governments, scientists and entrepreneurs are diving in,” the report noted. “It is now, more than ever, apparent that our current system of meat, eggs and dairy production is vulnerable and inadequate.”

Investors see opportunities in reinventing meat

By the end of 2019, 55 clean or cultivated meat companies had formed worldwide. Out of those, 20 were new in 2019, and the focus of seven of those new to the market is serving cultivated meat companies business-to-business, according to GFI.

One of the earlier entries into the clean meat arena, Memphis Meats, received $186 million in Series B funding earlier this year, which several news outlets, including Forbes, reported is the largest investment in the history of the industry. The company plans to use the money to hire more staff, construct a pilot production facility and, four years after its founding, get its meat products into the marketplace.  

Memphis Meats launched in 2016 with $2 million in seed funding. The California-based company has already touted its success creating the “world’s first cultured meatball,” and has developed meat out of pig, chicken and beef cells. 

The enthusiasm for lab-grown meat goes beyond the environmental benefits: Advocates of this sector believe that meat grown from cells is the best way to replicate the taste and quality of conventional meat. To that end, some researchers are trying to replicate the meat “feel” as much as they can. In one approach to cell-based meat (CBM) production, a soy protein “scaffold” is used to support three types of bovine muscle tissue to create a product that not only tastes like steak, but also feels more like a steak when it’s eaten.

But while investors have moved quickly to find opportunities in this space, not all efforts have been successful. For example, Hampton Creek, a San Francisco-based company founded in 2011 and known originally for its popular plant-based sauces and spreads, received hundreds of millions of dollars in investment since the mid-2010s and had planned to launch clean meat products in 2018. But the company was accused of buying its own merchandise to increase sales, and some stores yanked products from shelves due to safety concerns. The company has rebranded as Just, and while paring down its offerings considerably, it says it is still working on launching a clean meat product.

Despite some setbacks, researchers see promising results coming from labs, although consumer acceptance will be the real test. As for KFC, the company says the first nuggets are scheduled to be test marketed in Moscow this fall.

Image credit: Aleks Dorohovich/Unsplash

Ellen R. Delisio headshot

Ellen R. Delisio is a freelance writer and paraeducator who lives in Middletown, CT.  Over the past 30 years, her writing has focused on life science, sustainability and education issues. Ellen is an avid reader and beach-goer.

Read more stories by Ellen R. Delisio