HONG KONG — First, meat came from farms and forests. Then, it came from factories. More recently, entrepreneurs have been making it from plants.
Some have wondered whether there’s a more advanced approach: Could meat be grown in a laboratory, from existing cells? That effort has faced multiple challenges, from skepticism over something that comes from a lab to questions about what governments might think.
The nascent laboratory meat industry won a small victory Wednesday on that last point, as an American start-up became the first to win government approval — in this case, an announcement by the city state of Singapore — to sell the fruit of its labs to the public in the form of “cultured chicken.”
The company, Eat Just, is based in San Francisco and describes its product as “real, high-quality meat created directly from animal cells for safe human consumption.” Singapore’s Food Agency said on Wednesday that it had approved the product for sale as an ingredient in chicken nuggets.
“This is a historic moment in the food system,” Eat Just’s chief executive, Josh Tetrick, said by telephone on Wednesday. “We’ve been eating meat for thousands of years, and every time we’ve eaten meat we’ve had to kill an animal — until now.”
Singapore’s move is “the world’s first regulatory approval for a cultivated meat product,” said Elaine Siu, the managing director of the Good Food Institute Asia Pacific, a nonprofit organization that promotes cultivated meat and plant-based substitutes for animal products.
“Anyone in this field would know that this is the world’s first because everyone has been waiting — and trying to lobby and fight for it — for the past few years,” added Ms. Siu, whose nonprofit is affiliated with a group with the same name in Washington.
Singapore’s Food Agency said on Wednesday that it approved the nuggets after Eat Just submitted a safety assessment to the agency’s “novel food” working group, whose seven members are outside experts on food science, toxicology, nutrition, epidemiology and other fields. The agency includes “cultured or cell-based meat grown under controlled conditions” under its definition of novel foods, along with some species of algae, fungi and insects.
“We’re not aware of other countries that have given approval for cultured meat products so far,” Ginny Tan, a spokeswoman for the agency, said in an email.
Mr. Tetrick said that an unnamed Singapore restaurant would begin selling the product “soon enough to begin making a reservation,” but he declined to provide any further details. The company has previously said that it would cost $50 to make a single nugget. It now says on its website that the nuggets will be available at “price parity for premium chicken you’d enjoy at a restaurant.”
Eat Just already sells an egg-like product that it makes from mung beans, Mr. Tetrick said. The product is sold in the United States and China, he said, and the company plans to expand to South Korea early next year.
Mr. Tetrick said he hoped that Singapore’s decision to approve his company’s “GOOD Meat” chicken nuggets would spur regulators in the United States and countries in Western Europe to move faster to regulate lab-grown meat.
“It’s not good for what we’re trying to do to make the food system better if Singapore’s the only one that has this approval,” he said.
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration’s approval is not required for most new ingredients, including imitation meat developed by vegan food brands. Companies can hire consultants to run tests, and they have no obligation to inform the agency of their findings, a process known as self-affirmation.
Ms. Siu of the Good Food Institute said that to her knowledge, no regulator in the world had said that a cultured-meat product could go straight to market. “I think from a business perspective you would want to have the regulator’s blessing,” she added.
The meat business has long faced criticism from animal-rights activists who argue that eating meat is inhumane. The industry has been attracting more scrutiny in recent years for its impact on climate change.
Livestock accounts for around 14.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions each year — roughly equivalent to the emissions from all the cars, trucks, airplanes and ships combined. Per gram of protein, cattle have more of an impact than pork, chicken or egg production, largely because they belch up methane, a potent planet-warming gas.