The Van Trump Report

FDA Approves Lab-Grown Meat but Will US Consumers Bite?

The US Food and Drug Administration earlier in November approved the first cultivated meat product for human consumption. That means just one final stamp of approval from the US Department of Agriculture is needed before Upside Food’s lab-grown chicken can be sold to consumers. Most believe the odds of that happening are high, though the company (formerly Memphis Meats) plans a slow rollout that will likely begin via high-end restaurants. The approval is also expected to be the first of many in the coming months as other cultivated meat companies rush to get their products through regulatory hoops.    

For those not familiar, cultivated meat, also referred to as “lab-grown-meat,” is not a meat substitute. Rather it is “grown” from real meat cells, making it genetically indistinguishable from that of real chicken, beef, etc. The cells, harvested from animals, are typically placed in large bioreactors and fed growth media, encouraging them to multiply. The tissue is then “harvested” and made into meat products. This differs from meat substitutes produced by companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible, which are generally made from plant proteins, fillers, etc.

FDA’s determination that Upside Food’s cultivated chicken is “generally recognized as safe” is an important hurdle, though the company says it is still finalizing the approval process with the USDA. That will include USDA inspections of facilities that are held to the same standards as regular meat and poultry processing companies. The design of the facilities must also meet USDA regulatory requirements.

The trickier and more controversial part of the approval process might be labeling, which USDA also oversees. The USDA has not yet finalized the rules for cultivated meat products, although the agency last year issued a request for input that drew nearly 1,200 comments. The livestock and traditional meat industry not surprisingly stand firm in their views that labels must clearly differentiate between real meat and lab-grown products.  

According to the Good Food Institute, 13 states already have laws on the books dealing with the labeling of cell-based meat, many of which were passed years ago in an attempt to protect the livestock and meat industry. Most prohibit cell-based products from being labeled as “meat.” Proponents of cultured meat, however, argue that their products are in every way indistinguishable from meat and should therefore be labeled as such. Industry insiders say the labeling issue could lead to long and costly lawsuits for cultivated meat companies if they end up trying to fight a minefield of state regulations.

I’ve recently seen cultivated meat referred to as “no-kill” meat, which if it catches on, would no doubt appeal to a certain demographic. The bigger problem for lab-grown meat companies from a marketing perspective, however, could be converting consumers. A recent study showed that only a quarter were even willing to try cultured meat. That same study, however, also posited that those views could be strongly influenced by price. On that point, cultured meat is nowhere close to being a winner.

Exact costs are a closely guarded secret in the cultured meat industry but as recently as last year, the cost of production was estimated as high as $10,000 per pound. By the cultured meat industry’s own estimates, it will cost as much as $17 per pound to produce the stuff at the first large commercial-scale facilities. That theory has not been tested as only pilot facilities are being operated currently. Nonetheless, cultured meat is likely to cost substantially more than the real stuff.

Price could have something to do with Upside Foods’ rollout plans. When/if it gets USDA approval, the company’s chicken will be exclusive to a very small number of high-end restaurants. Uma Valeti, Upside’s CEO, explains, “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.” While that may be true, it’s also true that Michelin-starred restaurants are the least likely to see pushback on price points.

Upside Foods could have lots of competition once cultivated meats gain full approval, too, with close to 100 companies trying to establish a footing in the space. While most are startups, industry giant JBS is also in the game with at least $100 million invested. The world’s largest meat producer acquired cultivated meat startup Biotech Foods and also has a cultivated meat R&D center in Brazil, along with a pilot facility in Spain. Some companies are also planning to introduce “hybrid” products that blend cultivated meat with either traditional meat or plant-based substitutes to bring down prices. (Sources: USDA, Wired, The Counter, FoodDive)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *