In a major first, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration just offered its safety blessing to a cultivated meat product startup. It completed its first pre-market consultation with Upside Foods to examine human food made from the cultured cells of animals, and it concluded that it had “no further questions” related to the way Upside is producing its chicken.
“At this time, this is the only human or animal food product for which the FDA has completed an evaluation,” the agency confirmed to TechCrunch via email.
Before you get too excited, the FDA noted that the pre-market consultation “is not an approval process,” but that it did agree with Upside’s safety conclusion about its products. Still, it’s a historic milestone for cultivated meat companies that are trying to scale their products. Indeed, progress around the world has been slower than food entrepreneurs might like. Singapore was the first nation to approve cultured meat products for sale, with Eat Just being the first, and really only, company to sell its lab-grown chicken there.
As Upside Foods explains, the company will now work with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to secure the remaining approvals before its cultivated chicken can be sold to consumers. The company didn’t provide a time frame for when that will happen, but says that “more details on the timing of the launch will follow.”
“Cultivated meat has never been closer to the U.S. market than it is today,” Uma Valeti, Upside’s founder and CEO, told TechCrunch via email. “This historic announcement from the FDA is the foundational step in the regulatory process. Next, we will work with USDA to obtain a grant of inspection for our Engineering, Production, and Innovation Center (EPIC), and to approve our label. Once those items are complete, we can begin commercial production and sales of our cultivated chicken filet.”
The FDA and United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) say these requirements include facility registration for the cell culture portion of the process, a manufacturing inspection and for the food itself to receive a mark of inspection from the FSIS before it can enter the U.S. market. This includes making sure it is properly regulated and labeled, the agency said.
“We are already engaged in discussions with multiple firms about various types of food made from cultured animal cells, including food made from seafood cells that will be overseen solely by the FDA,” the FDA said in a written statement. “Our goal is to support innovation in food technologies while always maintaining as our priority the production of safe food. Human food made with cultured animal cells must meet the same stringent requirements, including safety requirements, as all other food.”
While Upside’s chicken product is now deemed safe, is it practical price-wise? As we’ve previously reported, making cultivated meat products is expensive and the scale is not yet close to meeting the demand for meat around the world.
“Initially our chicken will be sold at a price premium,” Valeti said. “As we scale, we expect to eventually reach price parity with conventionally-produced meat. Our goal is to ultimately be more affordable than conventionally-produced meat.”
What is evident is that there is a lot of activity going on in this space. Just this week, Meatable unveiled its hybrid approach of lab-grown meat and plant-based proteins to be able to move faster to market. Meanwhile, Vow, another cultivated-meat startup, announced a rather large Series A round — $49.2 million — and is tapping into that existing Singapore network to get its exotic meat products, like kangaroo and alpaca, into restaurants.
One thing’s for sure, the FDA making a definitive move for Upside Foods will hopefully be a “rising tide lifts all boats” moment for the cultivated meat industry.
Synthesis Capital’s co-founder and partner Rosie Wardle, who was part of Upside’s $400 million Series C round earlier this year, seems to think so. She said via email that Synthesis sees this “as one of the most important milestones for the future of the food industry to date.”
Especially as the cultivated-meat method is estimated to cut greenhouse gas emissions by up to 96% via less water, land use and energy over the traditional way of using animals to make meat.
“Our own research indicates that alternative protein growth will continue exponentially through the late 2020s and early 2030s, with the sector reaching dominant market share in around 2035,” Wardle added. “The FDA approval for cultivated meat is a significant step in that direction, and we believe this announcement will have an overwhelmingly positive impact on the broader alternative proteins market.”
We’ve reached out to Upside Foods for comment and will update the story with any responses.