Cultivated meat has been greenlit in the United States for the first time. The decision by the Food and Drug Administration means that a company called Upside Foods will soon be able to sell chicken made from real animal cells grown in bioreactors instead of requiring the slaughter of live animals.
A positive response from the FDA has long been seen as the next major milestone for the cultivated meat industry. In the past few years, startups in the space have built small-scale production facilities and raised billions of dollars in venture capital funding but haven’t been able to sell their products to the public. Until now, the small number of people invited to try cultivated meat have had to sign waivers acknowledging that the products were experimental.
There are just two smaller regulatory steps remaining until cultivated meat can be made available to the public. Upside’s production facilities still require a grant of inspection from the United States Department of Agriculture, and the food itself will need a mark of inspection before it can enter the US market. These two steps are likely to be completed much more quickly than the long FDA premarket consultation process that resulted in the approval.
“It’s the moment we’ve been working toward for the past, almost seven years now,” says Uma Valeti, Upside’s CEO. “Opening up the US market is what every company in the world is trying to do.”
Different startups are focusing on a range of cultivated meats, including beef, chicken, salmon, and tuna. This announcement applies only to Upside Foods and its cultured chicken, although it’s likely that other declarations will follow soon. Through this premarket consultation process, food manufacturers provide the FDA with details of their production process and the product it creates, and once the FDA is satisfied that the process is safe, it then issues a “no further questions” letter.
The FDA decision means that cultivated meat products may soon be available to the public to try, although it’s likely that tastings will be limited to a very small number of exclusive restaurants. Michelin-starred chef Dominique Crenn has already announced that she will serve Upside Foods’ cultivated chicken at her restaurant Atelier Crenn in San Francisco.
Valeti says that he wants the public to have their first taste of Upside chicken through selected restaurants before they can buy and cook it at home. “We would want to bring this to people through chefs in the initial stage,” says Valeti. “Getting chefs excited about this is a really big deal for us. We want to work with the best partners who know how to cook well, and also give us feedback on what we could do better.”
Atelier Crenn won’t be the first restaurant to serve cultivated meat, however. In December 2020, Singaporean regulators gave the green light to cultivated chicken from the San Francisco–based startup Eat Just. The chicken nuggets were sold at a members-only restaurant called 1880 and later made available for delivery.
Cultivated meat is different from plant-based meats because it contains real animal cells and is—theoretically—indistinguishable from real meat itself. Cells are initially isolated from an animal and developed into cell lines that are then frozen. Small samples from these cell lines can then be transferred to bioreactors—usually large steel tanks—where the cells are fed growth media containing the nutrients that cells need to divide. Once the cells have grown and differentiated into the correct kind of tissue, they can be harvested and used in cultivated meat products.
But growing cells in this way is still extremely expensive. Startups keep the exact cost of growing their cells tightly under wraps, but it’s likely that pure cultivated meat will still be several times the cost of conventional meat. Some projections for future facilities suggest that even large facilities will produce meat at a cost of $17 per pound—which would translate into much higher prices in restaurants and grocery stores. Because of this price premium, it’s likely that the first cultivated meat products released to the public will be a blend of animal cells and plant-based meat.
The FDA decision doesn’t mean that cultivated meat will be widely available in the near future. Current production facilities are very small, and many in the industry have serious reservations about lab-grown meat’s ability to eventually put a dent in global meat consumption. “The next phase for us and the industry is demonstrating scalability,” says Valeti, likening the cultivated meat industry today to the electric car industry’s infancy. “Our industry is similar in that it’ll take five, 10, 15 years to scale up and for most people to access it in many parts of the world. But it is the future.”