Americans are about to get their first taste of cultivated meat

Upside Foods and Eat Just have both received regulatory approval to sell their lab-grown chicken to restaurants and supermarkets.
By Maria Virginia Olano

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A plate of lettuce and radishes with grilled chicken array in a row in the center
Upside Food’s cultivated chicken, now approved for sale, resembles a piece of chicken breast. (Upside Foods)

Lab-grown meat, once a concept confined to science fiction, is about to become a reality in the United States: Upside Foods and Eat Just, two California-based companies that have been at the forefront of developing the technology, announced this week they had each received final regulatory approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for their chicken. This means that cultivated meat — cells that are coaxed to grow into tissue inside stainless-steel tanks — can now be sold for the first time at restaurants and, eventually, on supermarket shelves around the country.

We’ve made history today after so many years of hard work and commitment to working on problems that people thought were unsolvable to reach this milestone,” said Amy Chen, chief operating officer at Upside Foods, in an interview with Canary Media on Wednesday.

Eat Just and Upside had both already cleared a series of regulatory hurdles. Last November, Upside became the first cultivated-meat company to undergo a pre-market safety assessment conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which deemed the company’s cultivated chicken safe for consumption. Good Meat, a division of Eat Just, received the same designation for its chicken earlier this year. Both companies also obtained approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for their products’ labeling, including the list of ingredients and handling instructions.

The final regulatory step, which the USDA completed this week for both companies, was a grant of inspection determining that the companies’ production facilities have met the federal standards to operate meat processing and packaging. (Upside has put together a detailed explanation of the lengthy approval process here.)

Chen says the thorough evaluation by both agencies will ultimately lead to increased consumer confidence in Upside’s products and how they are produced. And although making meat in a lab from animal cells is vastly different from conventional meat processing, both Upside and Eat Just have said that their facilities will be subject to the same inspection processes as conventional meat products, and their products will bear the same USDA seal.

With the regulatory process completed, Eat Just and Upside are wasting no time on bringing their chicken to U.S. markets. Eat Just subsidiary Good Meat has started production on its first order of cultivated chicken, which will be sold to renowned chef José Andrés and served at a yet-to-be-disclosed restaurant in Washington, D.C.”

Meanwhile, Upside announced it has already taken its first restaurant order from three-Michelin-starred Chef Dominique Crenn, who runs the upscale San Francisco restaurant Atelier Crenn and several other establishments. Chef Crenn stopped serving meat in 2018 because of the impact of factory farming on animals and the planet” but has now announced that meat is back on the menu thanks to a partnership with Upside. We’re going to start small-scale with Dominique, allow consumers to have their first taste, and then will continue to expand from there,” said Chen.

Upside will start selling its product in the form of a chicken filet that resembles a chicken breast. However, Chen added, We are building out a broader portfolio of different products that range from the chicken breast to dumplings and sausages and lots of other fan-favorites, and we’ll continue to expand both the product portfolio moving into different species in different forms and different restaurants over the next few months to years.” Upside will need to go through similar approval processes for each type of meat it produces, even if it’s just a new form of chicken. 

A piece of chicken being cut with a knife and a fork
A close-up look at Eat Just’s chicken (Good Meat)

Upside and Eat Just are among more than 150 companies worldwide working to produce meat without killing animals. As of the end of 2022, the industry had raised a cumulative $2.8 billion in investment. Cultivated meat offers new solutions for consumers who are opposed to animal slaughter — an estimated 50 billion chickens are killed for food each year around the world, along with billions of other farmed animals.

Lab-grown meat production processes also consume fewer resources and generate less waste. Producing a conventional chicken breast requires raising a whole chicken, complete with bones, feathers and other parts that are not consumed. Cultivated-meat companies can instead grow just one specific type of tissue (for example, a chicken breast or a salmon filet), resulting in more efficient use of water, land and feed.

Another problem the cultivated-meat industry aims to tackle is conventional agriculture’s enormous climate footprint. The way we currently produce food generates one-third of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, much of which comes from raising animals for meat.

A life-cycle assessment of cultivated meat found that it produces less greenhouse gas emissions than traditional beef and comparable emissions to traditional pork and chicken when the production facility uses conventional energy,” which refers to energy supplied by a grid that runs mostly on fossil fuels. But the assessment found that when cultivated meat is produced with renewable energy, it results in less greenhouse gas emissions than all types of conventional meat, but still more than plant proteins like tofu. As grids get cleaner, the climate impact of producing cultivated meat will continue to shrink.

Chen says reducing the environmental impacts of meat production is at the core of Upside’s mission. “[We exist] to bring meat that people love to the table in a better way, and that is all about environmental impact, animal welfare and ultimately…human health.” The company is currently producing meat at its San Francisco facility, dubbed EPIC (Engineering, Production and Innovation Center), which runs on 100 percent renewable energy, and it says it plans to procure renewable energy and design for efficiency as it expands production into commercial facilities. 

A worker in a lab coat completes tasks in a large industrial laboratory filled with metal pipes and equipment
The cultivation room at Upside's EPIC facility in San Francisco (Upside Foods)

Despite the recent regulatory wins, Eat Just and Upside still face a number of challenges. Even once it’s more widely available, cultivated meat will continue to cost more than meat from animals. At the outset, we will be priced at a premium, and that will be the case for years to come,” Chen says, but the eventual goal is to reach cost parity with conventional meat.

The two companies also have to contend with the picky palates of squeamish American consumers.

Until this week, Singapore was the only country to allow the sale of lab-grown meat — since 2020, Good Meat’s cultivated chicken has been available there on restaurant menus and food-delivery platforms, and most recently, at Huber’s Butchery, a high-quality meat supplier.

According to consumer research commissioned by Good Meat, nearly 90 percent of Singaporean diners who tried cultivated chicken said they would substitute conventional chicken with its lab-grown counterpart, and 91 percent of restaurant operators said they would be open to selling cultivated meat; most said they could envision cultivated meat replacing conventional meat on menus within a decade.

But whether American eaters will adapt as easily remains to be seen. Upside has been combating cultivated meat’s so-called ick” factor by giving public tours of its production facility and working to be transparent about its operations (its facility has glass windows).

Chen says the challenge of winning over consumers is not insurmountable. We are seeing a real tailwind from a demographic, generational perspective in terms of climate-change concerns and the understanding that your purchasing decisions matter. […] We’re really encouraged by what we’re seeing.”

Maria Virginia Olano is editorial producer at Canary Media.