On Wednesday, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave approval to Upside Foods, a startup based in the San Francisco area, to sell its lab-grown, or “cultivated,” chicken. The product — which is biologically indistinguishable from chicken meat taken from a slaughtered bird — is made by growing animal cells in bioreactors, which are fed a mix of nutrients to develop into fat and muscle tissue. Though the company still needs USDA approval before it can sell to consumers, it’s a major step forward in the race to what could be an ethically and environmentally superior form of meat.
“We evaluated the information Upside Foods submitted to the agency and have no further questions at this time about the firm’s safety conclusion,” the FDA announced in a statement Wednesday. “The firm will use animal cell culture technology to take living cells from chickens and grow the cells in a controlled environment to make the cultured animal cell food.”
In a press release, Upside Foods said it will now work with the USDA to finalize the approval process before it can finally be sold to consumers. If granted USDA approval, their chicken will likely first be sold in small quantities at Atelier Crenn, a restaurant run by Michelin-starred chef Dominique Crenn, who announced a partnership with Upside Foods late last year.
According to Wired, Upside’s cultivated chicken has been approved through a “premarket consultation process,” during which “food manufacturers provide the FDA with details of their production process and the product it creates, and once the FDA is satisfied that the process is safe, it then issues a ‘no further questions’ letter.”
“Today we are one step closer to your dining tables as Upside Foods becomes the first company in the world to receive the US FDA green light — that means the FDA has evaluated our production process and accepts our conclusion that our cultivated chicken is safe to eat,” Upside wrote on its website.
In late 2020, Singapore became the first country to approve the sale of cultivated meat, a chicken product from the US-based startup Eat Just, which has been sold at a loss in small quantities at a high-end restaurant, a hotel, and through a food delivery service in the Southeast Asian city-state.
The taste of cultivated meat
Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to taste Upside’s cultivated chicken, and a few of its other products, at the company’s Emeryville, California, production facility outside San Francisco. I’ve been vegan for 15 years, but it reminded me of the poultry of my youth — gamy and crispy. Upside Foods’ production facility can produce around 50,000 pounds of cultivated meat a year, and the startup plans to eventually expand to produce 400,000 pounds of meat a year.
The novel meat goes by many names: lab-grown, cultivated, cell-based, and cell-cultured, to list just a few. For years, the “lab-grown” descriptor was accurate, given that efforts hadn’t gone much further than the lab. Now, some of the 100 startups around the world working to get it on your dinner plate are moving out of the lab and into small production facilities as they gear up for regulatory approval. But their offerings are wholly distinct from the vast array of plant-based meat products already on the market, like those from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, which are made with plant ingredients like soy, wheat, peas, beans, starches, and oil.
Cultivated meat, on the other hand, is real meat, but made without slaughtering or harming any animals. Startups take a biopsy of a living animal, a minimally invasive procedure, and create cell lines to avoid the need for continual biopsies. The cells are then grown in bioreactors — large stainless steel tanks — meant to mimic the inside of an animal, meaning the cells are kept at a certain temperature and fed a mix of nutrients, like amino acids, sugars, salt, and proteins, to help them proliferate and develop into fat or muscle tissue.
The FDA approval is the culmination of seven years of R&D for Upside Foods, formerly known as Memphis Meats, which has attracted more than $600 million in investments, including from Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and the meat giant Cargill. And the approval comes almost a decade after the cultivated meat field held its unofficial kickoff in London, when Dutch scientist Mark Post, a pioneer in the industry who co-founded the startup Mosa Meat, debuted a $325,000 cultivated hamburger in 2013.
Since then, cultivated meat companies have sprouted up around the world, concentrated in the US, Europe, Israel, and Singapore, armed with billions in venture capital funding.
Designing the meat of the future
Despite the pending US regulatory approval and enormous R&D war chest, you won’t find slaughter-free meat on grocery store shelves or fast food menus anytime soon; it’s still highly expensive to produce. Since the $325,000 burger in 2013, many startups have claimed they’ve been able to make it at a fraction of that cost, with estimates ranging from the tens of thousands of dollars per pound in the late 2010s down to thousands or hundreds of dollars per pound in the last few years.
Cultivated meat has long been promoted by its boosters as a technology that, if affordably produced at scale, could reduce our dependence on conventional animal agriculture and its multitude of social costs: environmental degradation, animal cruelty, and looming public health threats such as antibiotic resistance and zoonotic risk.
But as the hype around cell-cultured meat has been building over the last decade, so too has the skepticism. Some experts say startups will never be able to produce the stuff in large-enough quantities and at a low-enough price to ever displace conventional meat production. It’s a question of economic, manufacturing, and biological constraints.
Even some startups making cultivated meat are skeptical about the possibility of making 100 percent cultivated meat efficiently enough to compete with slaughtered meat on price, and are going the route of making “hybrid meat” products — that is, products mostly made from plants, with enough cultivated fat or muscle tissue sprinkled in to make it taste meatier than your average veggie burger.
Today’s announcement brings cultivated meat startups a step closer to testing the viability of their technology — and the prescience of their skeptics.
Clarification, November 18, 1 pm ET: An earlier version of this story contained a link to information that has since been changed. The current story has been updated to reflect that.