Cultivated meat has been approved for sale in the United States for the first time. The decision by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) 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.
The long-awaited decision from the FDA is a major milestone for the cultivated meat industry. In the last 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. Up until now, the small number of people invited to try cultivated meat have had to sign waivers acknowledging that the products are still experimental.
Different startups are focussing on a range of cultivated meats, including beef, chicken, salmon, and tuna. This announcement only applies to Upside Foods and its cultured chicken, although it’s likely that other approvals will follow soon. The products have been approved through an FDA process called Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). Through this 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, for the first time, cultivated meat products will 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.
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.