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U.S. approves ‘lab-grown meat’ for sale, but you probably won’t find it on shelves anytime soon

Upside Foods Chief Operating Officer Amy Chen said the recent approval from the USDA is a milestone for the cultivated meat industry “but it will absolutely take an ecosystem (of companies)” to make the meat commercially viable.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture gave two companies the green light last month to produce and sell their cultivated chicken meat across the country. But it could still take years before people can buy the new meat at grocery stores.

For the first time ever, “lab-grown meat” is available on the U.S. market.

In anticipation, a small group of people from across the country gathered in San Francisco last week to taste chicken grown from animal cells.

“You put it in your mouth, and the overwhelming response is, ‘It’s chicken, and it’s delicious,’” said Upside Foods Chief Operating Officer Amy Chen. “It’s the way it makes it to the table that’s unique.”

Upside Foods and Good Meat, two California companies, both received approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in June to produce and sell their cultivated chicken meat. The go ahead came months after the Food and Drug Administration certified the chicken products from both companies are safe to eat.

“When consumers buy cultivated meat that comes out of our production facility, for example, it will bear the same USDA-inspected symbol that they're used to seeing on their traditional meat,” Chen said.

But it could still take years until people can shop for the new food at grocery stores. The industry still has huge hurdles to overcome — cultivated meat is expensive to make, and labs aren’t able to nearly produce the billions of pounds of meat Americans consume every year.

“What makes this process particularly challenging is (animal) cells are more difficult to grow than maybe a yeast cell or bacteria cells,” said Tony Moses, a product innovation director with CRB, a Missouri firm that designs and builds labs for pharmaceutical, biotech and food companies.

The chicken isn’t cheap  

Cultivated meat is made by taking a small sample of animal cells and placing it inside steel bioreactor tanks called “cultivators” that look similar to a beer fermentation tank. The animal cells placed in the tanks can come from a living animal, a fertilized egg or a cell bank. They’re then combined with amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins and other nutrients that cells need to grow.

After a few weeks, the meat is taken out of the tanks and formed into cutlets, patties or other common food shapes. But the bioreactors that are used to grow cultivated meat often produce low quantities, Moses said, and figuring out how to improve the yield and efficiency of bioreactors is a must to scale up meat production.

Upside Foods grows its cultivated chicken products in steel bioreactor tanks at its Engineering, Production and Innovation Center in Emeryville, California.

Moses also said the input costs such as equipment, cleanrooms and liquid the animal cells are put in to grow, called culture media, need to drastically come down to make cultivated meat products widely accessible in the future.

“The cost of (cultivated meat) needs to be competitive with conventional meat that's currently on the market, if not less than that,” he said.

For now, both companies are serving their cultivated chicken in exclusive restaurants. Upside’s meat will be served at a three-Michelin-starred restaurant in San Francisco called Bar Crenn and Good Meat will serve its chicken at a restaurant in Washington D.C. owned by José Andrés.

Chen, Upside’s COO, said there’s still a long road ahead to make the company’s cultivated chicken products available and affordable.

“As we launch, we will be at a premium,” Chen said, “but over time, as we continue to scale, build out the supply chain and operate at larger scales, our costs will come down. And I think that will then allow more consumers to have access to products.”

She expects a mass market for lab-grown meat is likely a decade or more away.

Getting to know cultivated meat

Despite years in the making and over 150 companies across the globe focused on it, cultivated meat is still a fairly new concept to consumers. The cell-based meat industry aims to eliminate slaughtering animals for food and reduce the environmental impacts of farming animals.

“There's this simultaneous excitement and sort of incredulity, but also maybe a little skepticism when people hear about cultivated meat for the first time,” Chen said. “Our hope and expectation is that they can understand what it is and have this ‘aha’ moment that it’s just chicken.”

Sherry Heck
Cultivated meat, like this piece of chicken, is grown in a lab from animal cells and requires no slaughter. When produced at a commercial scale, cultivated meat uses up to 95% less land and 78% less water, according to a study commissioned by the Good Food Institute, a non-profit think tank that researches alternative proteins.

Since 2020, Good Meat has been selling its cultivated chicken meat in Singapore, the first country to approve the meat for sale. It has supplied its chicken products to a handful of restaurants, a food delivery service called Food Panda and a few roadside food stalls.

“Our experience has been that once people understand how it's made and they taste it for themselves, they're very open to substituting conventional meat with cultivated meat,” said Andrew Noyes, head of global communications and public affairs for Good Meat, in a November interview.

Both companies hope that cultivated meat can have a place alongside the conventional meat and plant-based industry eventually.

Chen acknowledges it will take more than just two companies to make cultivated meat a sustainable option. The amount of meat Upside can produce “is still a drop in the bucket in terms of how much meat we consume as humans."

Upside officials said its facility can produce up to 50,000 pounds of cultivated meat per year, but their goal is to expand to its full capacity at 400,000 pounds per year.

For comparison, the U.S. produced about 59 billion pounds of chicken last year.

“Cultivated meat is really a tool in the tool belt, if you will,” Chen said. “If you think about our demand for meat, it is growing substantially. And the way that our conventional meat makes it to the table, that system can't scale in its current form. So we're excited about providing consumers with choice.”

Xcaret Nuñez covers agriculture, food systems and rural issues for KOSU and Harvest Public Media and is a Report For America corps member.

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

I cover agriculture and rural communities for Harvest Public Media, and I’m based at Oklahoma’s NPR member station, KOSU in Oklahoma City.
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