The science experiment may soon make its way to your local store.
Upside Foods Inc. opened a meat processing plant unlike any other near the end of last year. Workers develop microscopic clumps of animal cells in enormous vats for two weeks at the $50 million facility just outside Berkeley, Calif., before progressively turning them into chicken breasts and steaks. At no point during the process is an animal slaughtered; instead, the flesh is created. The plant, which spans 53,000 square feet, is the world’s largest dedicated to so-called cultured meat; the company anticipates that people will be able to purchase the meat it produces by 2022.
Unlike plant-based meat alternatives that have been on the market for years, cultivated meat is real meat. The techniques used to grow it are well developed; the problem for startups such as Upside is producing the meat in large quantities while achieving the smell, texture, and mouthfeel diners expect.
After seven years of work, Upside claims the California plant is ready to produce up to 50,000 pounds of food.
We want to be able to ship product from here nationally and then internationally, says Uma Valeti, the company’s CEO and co-founder.
He claims that Upside can create just about any meat product, but will start with chicken nuggets and chicken breasts, and production has already begun at the facility. It smelled and looked exactly like grilled chicken when I had an Upside chicken breast last year. It tasted like it, too, albeit with a softer, less juicy texture.
I had to sign a waiver before I could take the taste test.
Before the public gets the same chance to try it, Upside needs a green light from U.S. regulators. Both the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture have spent three years figuring out how they’ll monitor the cultivated meat industry, visiting laboratories and examining every process companies use to make their products.
Although cultivated meat itself is considered safe, there are plenty of unanswered questions about how often the vats should be cleaned and how the meat should be transported and stored.
There’s also the issue of deciding on a name. In November, the agencies issued a public request for comment, asking for advice on what to call beef raised in a vat. Upside and others have pushed for “cultivated meat” over “synthetic meat,” “vat meat,” and other less appetizing options.
Such discussions are encouraging for those anticipating that US agencies will approve the products soon. Another positive development: the USDA recently spent $10 million to establish the National Institute for Cellular Agriculture, which is intended to support research in the field and help the United States become a leader in manufactured meat.
There’s been this haggling over the regulatory framework, but these are signs that the agencies are really close, says Chase Purdy, the author of Billion Dollar Burger: Inside Big Tech’s Race for the Future of Food.
It’s already possible to purchase some types of man-made meat. In December 2020, Singapore became the first nation to approve the sale of cultivated meat. Israel’s Aleph Farms says it will be ready with some vat-grown thin-cut steaks by yearend. California companies such as BlueNalu Inc. and Wildtype hope to follow with seafood products, including sushi-grade fish. Meanwhile, San Francisco-based Eat Just Inc. is already selling chicken in Singapore.
According to Purdy, there’s been pushback from beef ranchers and their lobbyists about the arrival of cultured meat, though industrial processors have largely welcomed the technology. Given the regulatory activity and the hundreds of millions of dollars already invested in American startups, the U.S. has a strong interest in becoming an early leader in the industry.
My view is that it might be a perfect storm that makes the U.S. the next country to greenlight cultured meat, Purdy says.