Inside the Struggle to Make Lab-Grown Meat
FDA says cultivated chicken grown by Upside Foods is safe to eat. Bringing it to market still faces many hurdles.
April 23, 2023: Prospects for lab-grown meat to land on American dinner plates got a boost last fall when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the first time declared cultivated chicken, grown by Upside Foods, safe to eat.
“It’s nearly time to eat cultivated meat,” Eric Schulze, Upside’s vice president of global scientific and regulatory affairs, said on Twitter as the company toasted the milestone with Champagne emojis. “Our Upside chicken is coming to consumers very soon.”
Since its founding in 2015, Berkeley, Calif.-based Upside has grown from little-known startup to darling of the cultivated-meat industry, valued at $1 billion and backed by investors including Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Kimbal Musk and the meat giants Tyson Foods Inc. TSN 0.23%increase; green up pointing triangle and Cargill Inc. Globally, more than 150 companies in the sector have raised $2.8 billion to date.
While Upside and others have long been able to grow small amounts of meat from cells, making larger volumes at low cost is proving much harder, according to interviews with current and former Upside employees, industry officials, investors and outside scientists.
Many are skeptical that cultivated-meat companies—which rely on expensive technology to make a low-price commodity—will be able to produce meat affordable enough to make a meaningful dent soon in the more than $1 trillion global meat market. They expect hybrid products, often made with animal cells and other ingredients such as plant-based protein, to have a quicker, less costly path to market.
“We can make it on small scales successfully,” said Josh Tetrick, chief executive officer of a rival food-technology company, Eat Just Inc., of Alameda, Calif., which in March received the second FDA nod that its cultivated chicken is safe to eat. “What is uncertain is whether we and other companies will be able to produce this at the largest of scales, at the lowest of costs within the next decade.” Mr. Tetrick said Eat Just’s Good Meat unit sells less than 5,000 pounds annually of its hybrid cultivated chicken in Singapore, the only country that now allows the sale of lab-grown meat to consumers. By comparison, global meat production is expected this year to top 350 million metric tons.
Upside says lab-grown meat has the potential to feed an expanding global population, while saving animals from slaughter and exacting a smaller environmental toll on the planet than traditional meat.
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Uma Valeti, the company’s CEO, said Upside has proven it can safely produce a delicious product. The company said that it has helped pioneer an industry and that it is making progress on growing larger quantities of meat, while bringing down its cost. “What we’re trying to do is not easy. It’s like putting a man on the moon,” Mr. Valeti said. “There’s no road map or blueprint.”
Upside works to develop new products and processes at its pilot plant in Emeryville, Calif., which opened in 2021. The company said it plans to serve its first commercial product, a chicken filet, at a three-star Michelin restaurant in San Francisco, once it gets approval from the Agriculture Department. The company calls its product a filet, rather than a chicken breast, because it didn’t come from a living animal.
Cultivated meat is typically produced by placing certain poultry and livestock cells into stainless-steel tanks known as bioreactors, where they are fed nutrients and oxygen before being harvested and formed into meat products.
According to former employees, Upside has struggled to produce large quantities of meat. They said the company often scrambled to make enough for lab analysis and tastings.
Upside for years worked to grow whole cuts of meat, which proved difficult in its bioreactors. It battled contamination in its labs. Traces of rodent DNA once tainted a chicken cell line, according to former employees, and confirmed by company executives. Today, the company is growing its marquee filet not in large bioreactors at its pilot plant but in two-liter plastic bottles akin to those used to grow cells for decades by pharmaceutical companies. Hundreds of disposable bottles, often called “roller bottles,” are required to make a few filets. “Roller bottles aren’t scalable. Too small, too labor-intensive,” said David Humbird, an independent chemical engineer who wrote a report skeptical of the industry.
Upside said the process works well for its small-scale production of chicken filet.
“It’s the ‘fake it till you make it’ principle,” said Samir Qurashi, a former Upside employee, referring to the company’s public communications about its progress. Mr. Qurashi left Upside after three months when his manager, a co-founder of the company, was fired in 2021.
The company said it has been transparent with the public. Upside said that it disclosed its use of the plastic bottles in documents submitted to the FDA and that it uses vessels ranging in size to produce its meat.
Image above: Upside, with facilities including the plant in Emeryville, Calif., is valued at $1 billion. Photo: PETER DASILVA/REUTERS
Upside said in 2021 that it found a way to produce some meat without using animal components. But its first chicken filets won’t be made with that process, the company said, noting that it intends to phase out the use of animal components.
Upside’s pilot plant isn’t yet operating at the 50,000-pound annual capacity the company announced when it opened in 2021, according to company executives, much less its future target of 400,000 pounds. Production can accelerate once Upside receives USDA clearance, company executives said.
Many of Upside’s investors said they were comfortable with their long-term bets on the company and its progress so far. “There’s never a clear timeline that’s exact or crystal ball on how something new to the world progresses,” said Priti Youssef Choksi, a partner at Norwest Venture Partners.
Industry champions said they are confident that steady scientific progress will help reduce production costs for cultivated meat, while climate change and global population growth will intensify the need for it.
“If alternative proteins are not successful, the Paris climate agreement goals are probably impossible” to meet, said Bruce Friedrich, president of the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for alternative proteins. Beef and dairy cattle, along with other farm animals, are a major source of methane, a greenhouse gas.
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Upside’s progress was hampered by an initial quest to grow in its bioreactors large pieces of tissue with the goal of producing whole cuts of meat, according to current and former employees. The company ran into problems with the costly and time-consuming process, while other companies proliferated using simpler techniques.
More recently, Upside has expanded its own focus on such techniques to make a slurry of cells and ground meat-like items that are cheaper and easier to produce. Last week the company said it intends—pending regulatory review—to offer new items including chicken sausages, sandwiches and dumplings that will be a mixture of animal cells and other ingredients such as vegetables and plant-based proteins.
“It turned out that tissue, or creating this whole-cut texture, was really challenging,” said Amy Chen, Upside’s chief operating officer, who added that the company has long sought to create a variety of products. Upside also wrestled with problems common to other cultivated-meat makers, including a battle against bacteria, according to former employees.
Growing meat requires meticulous sterilization because small quantities of bacteria can quickly overtake a bioreactor, ruining a batch.
Upside for years operated out of a building with an air-filtration system that contributed to contamination and an unreliable autoclave, a machine that sterilizes equipment, former employees said. Contamination also was an issue when Upside opened its new pilot plant, the employees said.
Upside said it faced the normal hiccups of starting production in the new facility and is highly confident in the safety of its products.
The company said contamination can slow production, but doesn’t affect final cultivated products, unlike conventional meat. The company said that autoclaves sometimes require maintenance and that meat grown for consumers won’t be produced in the older building. Upside said it has put in place additional measures to guard against contamination risk.
Image above: CEO Uma Valeti says the work to produce lab-grown meat is like ‘putting a man on the moon.’ Photo: PETER DASILVA/REUTERS
In a 2019 incident, an analysis of a line of cultivated chicken revealed that it had been contaminated with a small amount of rodent DNA, former employees said, which Upside executives confirmed for this story.
Ms. Chen said the DNA stemmed from a common medical-research technique that used treated rodent cells to help support the meat cells’ growth early in the cultivation process. The company immediately stopped using that technique, she said.
Upside says it assumes a small number of people consumed samples of the meat grown from that line before the contamination was discovered using a highly sensitive test. The company said it hadn’t conducted tastings with the general public, but declined to specify who might have eaten it. Mr. Valeti said that the cell line was only being used for research and development and posed no safety concerns. How do you feel about eating lab-grown meat? Join the conversation below. Some industry officials think companies can surmount contamination problems, but that other hurdles will still abound, including those tied to growing the finicky cells and the high cost of supplies.
Recently, investments in the alternative-protein sector have declined in the midst of a slowdown in venture funding. Cargill, one of Upside’s earliest investors, remains confident that cultivated meat one day will be available to many consumers, though sees it as a minor part of protein offerings for some time, said Florian Schattenmann, Cargill’s chief technology officer.
Mr. Valeti said in 2016 that Upside aimed to launch its products in restaurants and high-end grocery stores by 2019 and Costco by 2021. Within two decades, Mr. Valeti said at the time, a majority of meat sold in stores would be cultivated.
Upside said the Covid-19 pandemic delayed its timeline for bringing products to market, closing the company’s labs and making it harder to source some supplies.
“There’s not been anything close to a cakewalk,” Mr. Valeti said. “But we entered this knowing this is going to be really challenging.”
Jim Oberman and Elisa Cho contributed to this article.
Source: The Wall Street Journal