KFC Experiments with 3D Bioprinting and Other Food Science Technologies to Add More Plant-Based Options to Its Menu

KFC has been placing a number of bets on emerging food science to add alternative forms of "chicken" to its menu at locations around the world in its efforts to appeal to a growing population of diners concerned about issues related to their health, the environment and/or animal cruelty.
By Jeff Zabin, RTN - 9.4.2020

Increasingly, fast food chains are recognizing the need to develop more environmentally friendly methods of food production. For its part, KFC, the American-based global fast food restaurant chain with the word “chicken” in its name (or, at least, represented by one of its initials) is placing a number of bets on emerging food science to add alternative forms of “chicken” to its menu at locations around the world in efforts to appeal to a growing population of diners concerned about issues related to their health, the environment and/or animal cruelty.

In July, for example, KFC expanded its test run of plant-based “chicken” to more than 50 select KFC restaurants in Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego. Supplies quickly sold out. KFC had launched the initial test of its Beyond Fried Chicken, produced by Beyond Meat, in February in the Nashville and Charlotte markets to an overwhelmingly positive response.

“I’ve said it before: despite many imitations, the flavor of Kentucky Fried Chicken is one that has never been replicated, until Beyond Fried Chicken,” said Andrea Zahumensky, KFC’s Chief of Marketing.

With the growing trend in plant-based living reaching mainstream consumers across parts of Asia, KFC Hong Kong in June jumped on the bandwagon, launching its first meat-free offerings, dubbed the “New Era” series. The plant-based options include Alpha Foods’ nuggets and a Gardein chick’n patty, which is made of soy, wheat, pea protein, organic grains and vegetables. The launch follows KFC China’s announcement that locations across the country will be adding Beyond Meat burgers and Cargill-made plant-based fried chicken to its menu.

Last year, in the UK, KFC did a test run with a vegan “chicken” burger made by Quorn, dubbed The Imposter Burger. With demand for burger 500% higher than predicted, according to reports, it quickly became a permanent addition to the menu.

“The Colonel was all about welcoming everyone to his table – now vegans, flexitarians and our fried chicken fans can all enjoy the taste of our Original Recipe together,” said Ira Dubinsky, the head of marketing at KFC UK and Ireland. “We’ve worked hard to perfect the flavor and make a vegan burger the Colonel would be proud of. It’s the flavor of KFC, just with zero chicken.”

In the Netherlands, a Rotterdam branch of KFC went 100 percent meat-free for a week, also in partnership with Quorn, replacing all menu items with plant-based alternatives that have since been rolled out more broadly.

In July, KFC Canada announced that it was adding plant-based “chicken” to its permanent menu across the country. The launch follows a successful trial last year. The plant-based KFC sandwich features a vegan patty from Lightlife Foods. The chain will also reportedly offer plant-based “chicken popcorn.”

Meanwhile, in Russia, KFC is partnering with the 3D Bioprinting Solutions, Russian research laboratory, to create the world’s first laboratory-produced chicken nuggets — what it dubs the “meat of the future.”

The project aims to create a nugget that will be as close as possible in both taste and appearance to the original KFC product while being more environmentally friendly to produce than ordinary meat. Receiving a final product for testing is already planned for this fall in Moscow, Russia.

Bioprinting Chicken

3D Bioprinting Solutions is reportedly developing additive bioprinting technology using chicken cells and plant material, allowing it to reproduce the taste and texture of chicken meat almost without involving animals in the process. KFC will provide all of the necessary ingredients, such as breading and spices, to achieve the signature KFC taste.

The nuggets use a small amount of animal cells in combination with plant-based materials (such as breading and spices provided by KFC) to create cultured, or “clean,” chicken meat grown in a laboratory setting that is far more environmentally friendly than traditional animal agriculture, which not only involves the mass slaughter of animals but also typically requires the use of harmful antibiotics, produces enormous amounts of toxic waste that contaminates both land and water, and emits ozone-depleting gas that contributes to climate change.

Producing chicken meat in a laboratory rather than a factory farm is said to slash energy consumption in half, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 fold, and require 100 times less land than raising chickens for food. Given that KFC currently ranks as the world’s second-largest restaurant chain after McDonald’s, with 22,621 locations globally in 150 countries as of December 2019, any reduction in chicken production is sure to have a significant impact.

The bioprinting method has several advantages. Biomeat has exactly the same microelements as the original product, while excluding various additives that are used in traditional farming and animal husbandry, creating a cleaner final product. Cell-based meat products are also more ethical – the production process does not cause any harm to animals.

According to a study by the American Environmental Science & Technology Journal, the technology of growing meat from cells has minimal negative impact on the environment, allowing energy consumption to be cut by more than half, greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced 25 fold and 100 times less land to be used than traditional farm-based meat production.

“3D bioprinting technologies, initially widely recognized in medicine, are nowadays gaining popularity in producing foods such as meat. In the future, the rapid development of such technologies will allow us to make 3D-printed meat products more accessible and we are hoping that the technology created as a result of our cooperation with KFC will help accelerate the launch of cell-based meat products on the market”, said Yusef Khesuani, co-founder and Managing Partner of 3D Bioprinting Solutions.

“At KFC, we are closely monitoring all of the latest trends and innovations and doing our best to keep up with the times by introducing advanced technologies to our restaurant networks. [Clean] meat products are the next step in the development of our ‘restaurant of the future’ concept,” said KFC Russia General Manager Raisa Polyakova. “Our experiment in testing 3D bioprinting technology to create chicken products can also help address several looming global problems. We are glad to contribute to its development and are working to make it available to thousands of people in Russia and, if possible, around the world.”