Climate-friendlier meat just got a step closer to your plate

Upside Foods, one of more than 100 startups working on cultivated or lab-grown meat, is the first to earn a key approval from the U.S. FDA.

dinner plate with chicken and vegetables
No chickens were harmed in the making of this chicken dinner. (Upside Foods)
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American eaters might soon be able to enjoy real meat that wasn’t produced by raising and slaughtering animals — and that avoids the environmental impacts associated with animal agriculture. As of last week, Upside Foods, a California-based startup founded in 2015 under the name Memphis Meats, is one step closer to getting regulatory approval to sell its lab-grown chicken in the U.S.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration completed its first pre-market safety assessment of the company’s product and deemed it safe for human consumption. Upside Foods is the first company producing lab-grown meat to complete this step toward FDA approval, but likely not the last. In announcing the news, the agency said, The FDA is ready to work with additional firms developing cultured animal cell food and production processes to ensure their food is safe and lawful.” 

Upside still has a few regulatory hurdles to get over before its chicken can slide onto consumers’ plates, including passing U.S. Department of Agriculture inspections of its production facilities and meeting labeling requirements. But the initial go-ahead is an important milestone on the path toward what many consider to be the future of meat. The company told Canary Media, This landmark regulatory decision means that FDA has accepted our safety conclusion, and cultivated meat has never been closer to the U.S. market than it is today!”

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So far, Singapore is the only country in the world to allow the sale of lab-grown meat. Diners there, for example, can order chicken gyoza stuffed with Good Meats lab-grown chicken, a product that restaurants began serving at the end of 2020.

But the concept of cultivated meat (also known as lab-grown meat, cellular meat, no-kill meat or some-combination-of-those-words meat) has been around for about a decade. The basic principle (based on not-so-basic science) behind this new category of food is to take live cells from an animal and reproduce them in a lab to grow a piece of tissue that is cellularly identical to, say, a chicken breast, a piece of steak or a fish filet. 

Growing meat in this way has many advantages, though their rank of importance depends on who you ask. An estimated 50 billion chickens are slaughtered for food each year around the world, as are billions of other farmed animals. For some people, avoiding the suffering and death of vast numbers of animals could be the most important outcome of lab-based meat ventures. Others highlight the efficiency of not having to raise animals, which reduces the need for land, food and water. 

Cultivated meat can also have significant climate benefits, though this is a bit more nuanced than you might think. The climate impact of lab-grown meat stems largely from the electricity used to produce it as well as upstream production of inputs — the cells need to be fed” with a mix of carbohydrates, vitamins, proteins and other nutrients. CE Delft, an independent research and consulting firm based in the Netherlands, conducted a life-cycle assessment of cultivated meat and found that it results in lower greenhouse gas emissions than traditional beef and comparable emissions to traditional pork and chicken when the production facility uses conventional energy,” or grid power that comes mostly from fossil fuels. However, when cultivated meat is produced with renewable energy, the assessment found that it results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions than all types of conventional meat, though still more than tofu and other plant protein. As renewable energy expands and displaces fossil fuels and grids get cleaner, the climate impact of producing animal protein in this way will continue to shrink. 

Our goal is not only to build a process that requires less energy, but also to use better energy wherever possible,” an Upside Foods spokesperson told Canary. Its commercial production facility outside San Francisco, opened in November of last year, is powered by 100% renewable energy, the company says.

Upside’s main facility can produce up to 50,000 pounds of meat a year. (Upside Foods)

The climate impacts of agriculture are enormous — the way we produce our food is responsible for one third of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing emissions while at the same time providing enough food to feed a growing human population is a massive challenge, which is why alternative-protein companies have drawn so much attention — and cash. Upside Foods has raised over $600 million from investors including Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Whole Foods and, notably, Tyson Foods, the world’s largest poultry producer. 

And it’s not the only company raking in the money. According to the Good Food Institute, a trade group for alternative-protein companies, at the end of 2021 there were 107 cultivated meat and seafood startups, which raised a total of $1.38 billion in investment that year. The institute reports that 25 countries currently have at least one cultivated meat company. 

While cultivated meat is still months or even years away from grocery shelves in the U.S., alternative-protein products — plant-based approximations of meat — have been around for some time. Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods entered the market after big investment rounds and have secured buzzy celebrity endorsements, but despite the hype and early growth, they have shown signs of trouble recently that could impact the larger alternative-protein industry. 

One uncertainty facing cultivated meat startups is how consumers will respond to their products. Very little data exists on the topic. A study from Singapore Management University — one of the first of its kind — found that Singaporeans had greater acceptance of and willingness to try cultivated meat than their American counterparts because they associated it with technological innovation and pride in their country’s pioneering nature. The U.S., on the other hand, has already seen some political polarization over meat substitutes, though whether that will extend to cultivated meat is unknown. 

Other big uncertainties are cost and scalability. For cultivated meat to succeed in the market, it will need to be cost-competitive with traditionally raised animal protein, a goal that has not yet been reached by Upside or its competitors, despite huge strides in lowering costs. Upside said that it’s tackling this challenge by building out a new supply chain, lowering costs, and building large commercial facilities” to scale production. It added, further reducing the cost of cell feed and finding efficiencies in bioprocess scale-up will play key roles in achieving cost parity with conventionally produced meat.” 

Upside is optimistic that it can overcome cost concerns and win over consumers who want to continue to eat meat but do so in a more sustainable way. Cultivated meat products should provide consumers with nearly the same experience they would have when eating conventionally produced meat,” the company spokesperson said. The beauty of cultivated meat is that consumers who crave meat can still eat meat.”

Maria Virginia Olano is editorial and research associate at Canary Media.