The top questions on cultivated meat
Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave the green light to a cultivated meat product for the first time as part of the agency’s pre-market review process. UPSIDE Foods successfully completed the FDA’s rigorous pre-market safety review for its cultivated chicken, demonstrating that it is as safe as conventional chicken. This historic milestone will pave the way for consumers to be able to access these products in U.S. restaurants and retail.
Since our inception, GFI has been advocating for cultivated meat to have a clear path to market under a fair and transparent regulatory process. We are thrilled by this historic milestone and we know many stakeholders—from producers to consumers—will have questions about what this means. GFI answers six common questions about cultivated meat and this historic era in the world of alternative proteins.
What is cultivated meat?
Cultivated meat, also referred to as lab grown meat, is essentially the same as the beef, pork, chicken, and fish we eat today but grown directly from animal cells.
The process of cultivating meat enables the same biological process that happens inside an animal by providing warmth and the basic elements needed to build muscle and fat: water, proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals. In this way, cultivating meat is similar to growing plants from cuttings in a greenhouse by providing warmth, fertile soil, water, and nutrients.
We’re excited about this development because when produced at scale using renewable energy, cultivated meat is projected to generate a fraction of the emissions and require a fraction of the land and water of conventional meat production. Cultivated meat delivers the same delicious meat that consumers love without compromising taste, health, or the planet.
Is cultivated meat safe?
The FDA is responsible for ensuring the safety of foods available in the U.S. market and, together with the USDA, will regulate the sale of cultivated meat to ensure consumer safety. Following the completion of the FDA’s rigorous pre-market safety review for each cultivated meat product, those products will need to complete the same processes conventional meat companies must follow to ensure safe product production and handling.
The promise of cultivated meat is that, while practically identical to conventional meat at the cellular level, the nature of the production process can offer numerous advantages for product safety. Grown in a clean and controlled environment, cultivated meat is free of contaminants and foodborne pathogens, as well as the added hormones, steroids, or antibiotics that can be a concern for conventional meat.
For UPSIDE Foods’ cultivated chicken, the successful completion of the FDA’s rigorous pre-market safety review demonstrated that it is as safe as conventional chicken. Specifically, the FDA did not identify anything about the cells that made them different from other animal cells with respect to their food safety.
Notably, antibiotics and antifungal agents are not used at all during the production process, although they may be used in very small quantities during the pre-production phases (see our blog post and Nature Food article that discusses the use of antibiotics in cultivated meat). That means UPSIDE’s cultivated chicken, like cultivated meat writ large, will not contribute to antibiotic resistance and is likely to result in fewer incidences of foodborne illnesses and other diseases transmitted by animals. For example, UPSIDE’s cultivated chicken had very low microbial counts compared to conventional chicken and also tested negative for common foodborne pathogens such as Salmonella.
According to the CDC, three out of four new or emerging infectious diseases in humans come from animals. The cells used in cultivated meat production are carefully screened and confirmed to be absent of infectious pathogens, including viruses, bacteria, and other microbes that can cause foodborne illness or be transmitted to humans. This novel method of meat production can also help mitigate future pandemics by allowing us to produce meat without the confined animal operations that drive zoonotic disease transmission.
Why does the world need cultivated meat?
The way the world currently produces meat cannot be scaled up to meet growing demand: we simply don’t have enough land and water, nor can we keep increasing methane emissions or antibiotic use without harming public health.
With demand for meat projected to double by 2050 as the global population approaches 10 billion, coinciding with growing food insecurity and biodiversity loss caused by climate change, we need new ways of producing meat that satisfy growing demand while reducing pressure on our planet.
Growing meat directly from cells is vastly more efficient than conventional production. A GFI-commissioned Life Cycle Assessment by independent research firm CE Delft shows that, when produced at commercial scale using renewable energy, meat made in this way could produce up to 92 percent less emissions, and use up to 95 percent less land and 78 percent less water when compared to conventional beef production. For cultivated chicken, emissions can be cut by 17 percent and up to 63 percent less land can be used when compared to conventional chicken, giving consumers the meat they love in a climate-friendly way.
Cultivated meat represents a new era in food production that can feed a growing world safely—in a way that does not drive antimicrobial resistance, pandemic risk, food insecurity, or deforestation.
How does cultivated meat compare nutritionally with conventional meat?
In its rigorous pre-market review, the FDA observed that the overall nutrition of UPSIDE Foods’ cultivated chicken is comparable to conventional chicken, with all nutrient levels within range of observed levels in conventional chicken products. Slight variations were noted in cholesterol, folate, fatty acid composition, amino acid composition, and micronutrients depending on the batch and the products being used for comparison. But in all instances, the nutrient levels are consistent to those found in other commonly consumed foods.
To better understand these slight differences in nutrition, it can be helpful to look to the example of how the feed and forage an animal consumes can result in variations in the meat quality. Just as the nutrient levels of conventional meat are linked to what the animal is fed, the nutrient levels of UPSIDE’s cultivated chicken are linked to what the cells are fed — the specific mix of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals. In both cases, the way the animal and cells take in key nutrients from their ‘feed’ depends on a number of factors. As UPSIDE Foods continues to develop and improve their production processes, they will be able to make adjustments that improve how the cells they’re working with metabolize and take up key nutrients.
While we’re not at this point yet, the future promise of cultivated meat is that nutrient levels can be adjusted to make products healthier than the meat we eat today. For example, cultivated meat could be produced to have higher levels of vitamins and minerals such as vitamin B12 and iron, and less saturated fat and cholesterol than conventional meat.
When will U.S. consumers be able to buy it?
There are still a number of steps that UPSIDE Foods must follow before they can sell their cultivated chicken to consumers in the U.S.
Having successfully completed the FDA’s pre-market safety review for its cultivated chicken, UPSIDE says they “will now work with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to secure the remaining approvals that are required before UPSIDE Foods’ cultivated chicken can be sold to consumers. More details on the timing of the launch will follow.” At this time, we don’t have enough information at hand to make an educated estimate of how long these approvals will take and exactly when cultivated meat will be available for sale.
UPSIDE Foods has signed a partnership with chef Dominique Crenn who will serve UPSIDE’s cultivated chicken at her San Francisco restaurant, Atelier Crenn, when the product is approved for sale to consumers.
Commercial sales of a cultivated meat product were first approved in Singapore in late 2020, where such products continue to appear on select restaurant menus. Using Singapore as an example and considering UPSIDE’s partnership with Dominique Crenn, we anticipate that cultivated meat will make its U.S. debut in restaurants before the product is more widely produced and available in retail outlets.
What happens next?
Now that UPSIDE Foods has completed the FDA’s pre-market safety review for its cultivated chicken, they are now able to move onto the standard process comparable to what conventional chicken companies follow to ensure the safe production and handling of their chicken, including securing a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant of inspection of their facility. From that point, USDA inspectors will oversee processing, packaging, and labeling of the products. UPSIDE’s cultivated chicken labels will be pre-approved by the agency before products are sold in stores.
UPSIDE Foods is just one of more than 150 cultivated meat companies in the U.S. and around the world. This milestone marks a significant de-risking event for this still nascent industry, and we anticipate it will usher in a new wave of investment, talent, and innovations. We are already starting to see this wave growing. On December 7th, cultivated meat company Believer Meats announced it will establish its first commercial-scale manufacturing facility in Wilson, North Carolina.
Studies show that 80% of U.S. consumers report they are likely to try cultivated meat. People or companies who may have been on the sidelines waiting to see if cultivated meat can be a commercial reality in the U.S. in the near term can now roll up their sleeves and dive into this sector with much greater confidence.
Let’s stay in touch
We’ve only turned the first few pages of what’s in store for this novel meat production method. We foresee 2023 holding many more milestones for the cultivated meat industry. Subscribe to our newsletters to follow this journey!