Today, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) granted approval to two California-based startups — Upside Foods and Good Meat — to sell their lab-grown or “cell-cultivated” chicken, a historic first in the US. The green light from the USDA represents the final step in a multi-year regulatory process to bring slaughter-free meat to the dinner table. The FDA, which is also involved in regulating the nascent industry, recently gave approval to both companies as well.
“This is the moment where the science fiction becomes reality,” Amy Chen, chief operating officer of Upside, told Vox. “It’s a watershed moment for us to just rethink the future of food.”
“This announcement that we’re now able to produce and sell cultivated meat in the United States is a major moment for our company, the industry, and the food system,” said Josh Tetrick, CEO of Eat Just, the company that operates Good Meat, in a press release. “We appreciate the rigor and thoughtfulness that both the FDA and USDA have applied during this historic two-agency regulatory process.”
Cell-cultivated meat is produced by feeding animal cells a mix of nutrients — sugars, amino acids, salts, and vitamins and minerals — in large stainless steel tanks to develop them into fat and muscle tissue. If that sounds unappetizing (which it does to many consumers, depending on how they’re asked), take a look at the latest Vox investigation into how chickens are farmed.
Earlier this month, the USDA gave Upside and Eat Just approval to label their products “cell-cultivated,” effectively ending a long-running debate over what to call meat grown from animal cells rather than slaughtered animals. The final product is biologically indistinguishable from the meat of an animal and is wholly different from the plant-based burgers and sausages that have grown in popularity in recent years, like those from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, which use only plant ingredients.
But if cell-cultivated meat has passed a major regulatory bar, it’s still far from ready for mass consumption. Cell-cultivated chicken is much too expensive to compete with conventional boneless chicken breast, which costs as little as $4 per pound.
Upside and Good Meat will start small: Upside estimates that in a few weeks, it will begin selling its chicken filet at Bar Crenn, a high-end restaurant in San Francisco run by three-Michelin-star chef Dominique Crenn, where meals run $300 a pop. Good Meat will launch at a restaurant by chef José Andrés in Washington, DC. Like conventional meat producers, both companies will have USDA inspectors oversee their processing before they can start selling to consumers.
Upside, which was founded in 2015 and is valued at $1 billion, has ambitious plans to partner with more restaurants and create more meat products, from hot dogs to hamburgers to dumplings, over the next few years, Chen said. Eat Just, which also makes plant-based eggs, launched Good Meat, its cell-cultivated division, in 2017.
From 2016 to 2022, over 150 companies sprung up to develop cell-cultivated meat — receiving nearly $3 billion in investment — in the hope of displacing the conventional meat industry due to concerns about meat’s contribution to climate change, water and air pollution, and cruelty to animals on factory farms. With USDA approval, Good Meat and Upside now face the real challenge: scaling up.
Making meat from animal cells is possible. But can it be economical?
In 1931, Winston Churchill — who had a side gig as a futurist when he wasn’t saving Great Britain — predicted that humanity would one day grow meat in a factory rather than raise and slaughter animals. But it wasn’t until nearly 70 years later that anyone demonstrated it was possible. In 2000, scientists at Touro College in New York developed a fish filet made from goldfish cells — really — and soon after, NASA scientists experimented with growing meat from turkey cells.
But the race to make cell-cultivated meat didn’t really take off until 2013, when Dutch scientist Mark Post — a pioneer in the field — debuted a burger that cost $325,000 to produce. Upside launched two years later, and dozens of startups soon followed.
Though it’ll soon land on two US restaurant menus, cell-cultivated meat may not displace conventionally produced meat in the near future — or possibly ever. Skeptics say there are just too many technical and economic challenges in scaling it up, from preventing bacterial contamination, to sourcing cheap ingredients to feed the cells, to making cells grow faster and building enough bioreactors — the large, stainless steel tanks in which it’s grown — to produce it in large quantities at a low price point.
Since late 2020, Eat Just has been selling small quantities of cell-cultivated chicken at a loss in Singapore, the only other country that has granted regulatory approval for the product. “We can make [cell-cultivated meat] on small scales successfully,” Tetrick of Eat Just told the Wall Street Journal in April. “What is uncertain is whether we and other companies will be able to produce this at the largest of scales, at the lowest of costs within the next decade.”
Upside has also struggled to scale up its product, the Wall Street Journal has reported. The Upside chicken sold to Bar Crenn will be grown in small, two-liter plastic bottles rather than its large bioreactors. Upside chicken will also be made using some animal components, Chen said, which the company hopes to phase out.
Despite the challenges, cell-cultivated meat startups are plowing ahead and have broken ground on new production plants from Singapore to North Carolina. In late 2021, Upside said it could produce 50,000 pounds of cell-cultivated meat annually at its production facility in Emeryville, California, just outside San Francisco, with plans to increase it to 400,000 pounds in the future (annual global meat production is 350 million metric tons).
When asked if Upside’s chicken sold at Bar Crenn would be sold at a loss, Chen said, “The goal of our current production scales is not optimal output or efficiency or cost. … It’s really about being both a production facility, but also a learning engine for us to try next-generation technologies, for us to continue to iterate.”
Chen said Upside will soon announce the location and further details on a commercial plant that will eventually enable the company to produce millions of pounds of cell-cultivated chicken and beef annually. “At that level, the economics are attractive,” she said. “And you can start seeing the sustainability and viability, from a financial perspective, of the industry playing out. I would say we’re a couple years out from being able to show those unit economics that work.”
Cell-cultivated meat boosters, like the advocacy group the Good Food Institute, argue that while the path to cost competitiveness will be long and arduous, the industry has already made immense progress in under a decade, and other technologies that were once exorbitantly expensive have drastically fallen in price, like solar panels. Even meat from animals, which was once a delicacy, is now consumed in quantities that would shock our ancestors.
Cell-cultivated meat development could be sped up with government investment in R&D, supporters also argue, just like with solar panels, electric vehicles, and other emerging, environmentally beneficial technologies. Countries including the Netherlands, Denmark, Qatar, Singapore, Israel, and the US have committed funding, but experts say that much more is needed to help cultivated meat scale rapidly. In early 2022, China’s agricultural ministry announced it would prioritize developing cell-cultivated meat.
“As we navigate a future with increasing global demand for meat, it is crucial that governments worldwide prioritize cultivated meat as a solution that satisfies consumer preferences, supports climate goals, and ensures food security for generations to come,” said Bruce Friedrich, president of the Good Food Institute, in a press release.
To bypass some of the scaling challenges, some companies have taken a “hybrid” approach by making burgers and bacon that combine primarily plant-based ingredients with a small amount of animal cells to enhance flavor and texture. But even that approach could prove challenging, given cooling consumer interest in plant-based meats like Impossible and Beyond burgers.
Other startups, like California-based Blue Nalu and Wildtype, are focused on creating high-end cuts of meat in order to more easily compete with conventional meat on cost, like bluefin tuna and salmon.
If history is any guide, predictions about the availability and cost of cell-cultivated meat are largely useless. But continued efforts to build and scale it, given skyrocketing global demand for meat, eggs, and dairy, are essential, said Chen of Upside: “We as a planet, and as a society, have no plan B. ... If you look at the current footprint of conventional meat, and combine that with how we expect meat demand to grow over time, the math literally doesn’t work out. And so I think there is a fierce urgency for us to solve and to completely reinvent the way meat makes it to the table.”
If they want to make their products a viable alternative, Upside, Good Meat, and their more than 150 cell-cultivated meat competitors will now have to make their own math work out.