In an historic milestone that will irrevocably change the landscape of food, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has authorized the sale of cell-cultivated chicken—chicken grown from stem cells in a bioreactor—from two Bay Area-based food technology companies, Good Meat and Upside Foods. The approval, which arrived in company inboxes early this morning in the form of an official “Grant of Inspection,” clears the way for the production and marketing of an entirely new food category in the United States, and is likely to herald a sea change in how consumers and the industry think about meat.
Singapore was the first country to allow sales of cultivated meat—produced by Good Meat—in 2020, but regulatory approval in the U.S. is likely to have a far greater impact given the country’s size and influence, paving the way for several other countries and companies to release similar products. “The news coming out of the U.S. is an exciting development for the entire cellular agriculture ecosystem,” says Maarten Bosch, CEO of Netherlands-based Mosa Meats, one of the first companies to pioneer the technology. “With regulators in Asia and North America signaling that cultivating meat is a safe alternative to slaughtering animals, policymakers worldwide will be jumping into action so as not to miss out on the huge economic and environmental opportunity presented by cellular agriculture.”
“The U.S. regulatory authorities have a strong reputation globally, so the world is likely to now follow that lead,” says Nir Goldstein, the Israel head of the Good Food Institute (GFI), an international advocacy and research institution that promotes alternative protein technologies.
Upside, which was launched as Memphis Meats in 2015, is headed by Uma Valeti, a Mayo-Clinic cardiologist-turned-food pioneer who first came up with the idea while attempting to grow heart cells in vitro more than a decade ago. USDA recognition is the cumulation of years of effort and innovation he says, and proves that cell-cultivated chicken—the industry-recognized term (as opposed to “lab-grown” meat)—is safe, wholesome, and responsibly produced. While Valeti is a vegetarian, his main objective in taking on a radically new way of producing meat was a concern for climate change.
Industrial animal farming is responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions according to the United Nations. In its State of Climate Action 2022, the World Resources Institute recommended that residents of developed countries eat no more than the equivalent of two burgers a week in order to limit global warming. While replacing animal agriculture and shifting to a plant-based diet would be better for both planetary and human health, the likelihood of people actually doing so is slim, says Valeti, so he decided to focus on recreating meat without the animals responsible for so many emissions.
Upside’s cultivated chicken filets start with a small sample of stem cells that are grown in a temperature-controlled nutrient bath in a bioreactor, and take about two weeks to reach harvestable size. The meat cooks just like a chicken breast, and tastes exactly the same—if anything, slightly richer and tastier. “It’s real meat, without the environmental and ethical consequences,” said Valeti at a recent tasting at his Berkeley facility. According to GFI, cultivating meat in this way releases 80% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventional meat production, while reducing land and water requirements by more than 78%.
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Good Meat, a division of the San Francisco-based food technology company Eat Just, Inc., that is already selling its cultivated chicken in Singapore, uses a similar process. The two companies, among the most established in the industry, are cross-Bay rivals but Good Meat CEO and founder Josh Tetrick says that both companies’ approval for sale in the U.S. market is a win for cultivated meat as a whole.
“It has never been about a single company. It’s about the industry. We have to solve our meat issue, because farming animals is responsible for more [global] emissions than transportation. Eating less meat is not the answer. It’s replacing conventional meat with something that allows people to continue eating the meat they are used to, but in a way that’s better for the planet. The more companies in Singapore or the United States or elsewhere who can actually sell [cultivated meat] to real consumers is an enormously positive step.”
More than 100 companies are working on various iterations of cultivated meat, ranging from lab-grown beef to 3-D printed steaks, foie gras, seafood, and even cultivated mouse treats for cats. But authorization, first from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), followed by the USDA, is on a product-by-product basis. First the FDA must issue a “no objection” letter which states that the product is safe to eat—the FDA granted Upside the green light on Nov. 16, 2022, and Good meat not long after. Then the USDA must inspect the facilities, the packaging, and the meat products themselves before stamping each item as USDA approved. Only then can they be sold to the public.
But don’t expect to find cell-cultivated chicken filets in supermarkets right away. Both companies are planning a slow rollout, starting with high-end restaurants across the U.S. while slowly ramping up production. Now that it has a USDA grant of inspection, Upside is already processing its first order for three-Michelin-star chef Dominique Crenn, who will be serving Upside cultivated chicken at Bar Crenn, in San Francisco. Curious consumers who visit Upside’s social media accounts will be able to enter for a chance to join Crenn at the restaurant for a tasting.
Meanwhile, Good Meat says it is already working on a cultivated chicken order destined for celebrated restaurateur and humanitarian Chef José Andrés. Andrés, whose company operates more than 30 restaurants across the country, says that it will be served at one of his D.C.-based restaurants, but has not specified which one.
In November, Upside opened a 53,000-square-foot facility capable of producing 50,000 pounds of meat per year. It is one of the largest in the country, but that’s the equivalent of approximately 10,000 chickens. Considering that Americans consume 8 billion chickens a year, it’s going to take a while before Upside, Good Meat, and their competitors—once they receive approval—make a dent in the market. Tetrick says his company’s experience in Singapore provides a template, and a necessary reining-in of expectations. “People are going to buy it. But, and this is painful for me, it’s going to be sold, unfortunately, at a very small scale—I’m talking tens of thousands of pounds.” That may sound like a lot, he says, but ultimately, it’s only enough for a dozen restaurant menus. The limiting step, he says, is not consumer demand, but a lack of infrastructure. Tetrick estimates that it won’t be until late 2024 or 2025 that cultivated meat companies will be able to scale up the factories necessary to make the tens of millions of pounds of meat required for national distribution. Until then, he says, prices are likely to be higher than conventional meat.
Neither Upside nor Good Meat have released their prices, but in a recent interview Valeti told Yahoo Finance that his cultivated meat would likely reach price parity with conventionally-farmed chicken within “5-15 years,” a broad window that could make or break the industry. If his cultivated meat, or any other company’s for that matter, tastes and performs exactly the same as the real thing, the average consumer is unlikely to pay more, even if it is better for the climate. And without major customer uptake, cultivated meat will remain a niche product, unable to generate the income necessary to invest in additional scale. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation that has already bedeviled U.S. plant-based meat giants Beyond and Impossible as consumers, faced with inflation, focus on affordable basics. “There’s no reason why this can’t be significantly below the cost of conventional chicken, beef and pork and other animal proteins over time,” says Tetrick, of Good Meat. The question is just how much time that will take.
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