Could cell-cultured chicken be coming to American dinner plates by the end of the year? Food technology company Upside Foods, formerly known as Memphis Meats, believes so.
Cell-cultured meat, also known as cultured meat, cell-based meat, and lab-grown meat in its early days, is still a very new frontier. In terms of taste, texture, and nutritional value, it is identical to its conventional animal meat counterpart. But it skips the stages of production that are wreaking havoc on the environment: raising animals en-masse for slaughter. Instead, it is created by cultivating animal cells in a bioreactor.
Upside Foods was among the first startups to introduce the world to cell-cultured meat, showcasing a video of an animal-free meatball sizzling in a pan in 2016.
The Berkeley-based startup, which was founded by a former cardiologist, still has a major hurdle to clear before we can truly dine on cell-cultured chicken: regulatory approval.
The Road to Regulatory Approval
David Kay, director of communications at Upside Foods, tells LIVEKINDLY that the company has been “working very closely with regulatory agencies in the U.S. so we can bring products to consumers.”
The U.S. government is indeed paying attention to the nascent industry. In July 2020, the United States Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration launched a joint webinar detailing how the agencies will split duties in overseeing cell-cultured meat.
As it does for all foods, the FDA will do a pre-market safety assessment. It will oversee cell collection and growth. At the point of harvest, jurisdictions will transfer over to the USDA, which will oversee additional processing and labeling.
“We’ve been working with and sharing information with the industries for years now,” he adds. The agencies have been particularly open to this form of innovation in the food industry. “I think they recognize the urgency of the challenges our food system faces and the importance of ensuring that America maintains leadership in the food and agriculture space.”
Once approval is obtained, restaurants will likely be the first place that consumers can actually try Upside’s cell-cultured chicken.
“But ultimately the goal is to provide meat to consumers wherever you can find meat today,” says Kay. And, it will likely be in the form of something versatile, like a plain cutlet, so chefs and cooks alike can use it in a wide variety of cuisines. Although he couldn’t name names, Kay says that “many established brands in the foodservice space are very interested in what we are doing.”
At first, Upside’s cell-cultured chicken will be sold at a premium. “The ultimate goal is to be cost-competitive with conventionally produced meat. And really, the aim of the company is to be more affordable than conventionally produced meat,” says Kay. But, achieving that goal requires time and scaling up.
Strides have been made in terms of bringing cell-cultured meat to consumers over the past 12 months. California-based company Eat Just, known for its plant-based mayo and egg, gained regulatory approval to sell cell-cultured chicken in Singapore late last year. Israel-based startup SuperMeat opened a restaurant/tasting facility that served its cell-cultured chicken, situated next door to its production plant, in Tel Aviv in November 2020, in order to gain feedback from diners on their culinary experience. Aleph Farms, also based in Israel, plans to bring cell-cultured meat to Brazil, the world’s largest beef exporter, and Japan, in partnership with Mitsubishi.
Investments in Cell-Cultured Meat
The cell-cultured meat industry has earned attention not only from a handful of world governments, but also from investors. According to a new report from the Good Food Institute (GFI), a nonprofit centered on the acceleration of alternative proteins, investments in the burgeoning sector soared sixfold, topping $350 million.
Bloomberg reports that Whole Foods founder John Mackey invested about $500,000 in Upside Foods last year. In a press release, Mackey said that cell-cultured meat “has the potential to revolutionize the way people eat” within the next 20 years. Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and meat producer Tyson Foods are among Upside Foods’ other high-profile investors.
But are consumers ready to adopt these new meat analogue products? New research published in the journal Foods, which surveyed a sample of 2,018 US and 2,034 UK consumers, found that 40 percent were “very” or “extremely” likely to try cell-cultured meat. And between 98-99 percent would consider buying it regularly.
Given the ongoing climate crisis, and that 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from animal agriculture, the need to change the way that we eat is dire. Some studies indicate that if brought to scale, cell-cultured meat production may use more energy than conventional factory farms. But a GFI report released earlier this year says that the use of renewable energy would drop cell-cultured meats’ carbon footprint by a whopping 80 percent.
Ahead of its first launch, Upside Foods has broken ground on a pilot plant in the San Francisco Bay Area, funded by a $161 million investment round closed in January 2020. According to the company, the facility will produce, package, and ship cell-cultured meat at a larger scale than any other company in the world.
So, what does a cell-cultured meat facility look like? “The best analogy would be a beer brewing facility,” says Kay. “One of the things that we’re excited about for the pilot facility is that we’ll be able to give tours of the space and provide an unprecedented degree of transparency into how meat is produced.”