Lab-Grown Meat Passes First Hurdle On Path To Regulatory Approval

For the first and likely not the last time, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has concluded a pre-market consultation for a cultured animal cell food product — or, in more abrupt terms, lab-grown meat. The meat in question is chicken and, according to a November 16 update from the FDA, it is safely made in a controlled environment with living cells taken from actual chickens. This means that it contains the same muscular tissue as, for example, a chicken breast from a traditionally raised animal.

The company behind the product is Upside Foods, a Bay-area food technology startup and reportedly the first cultivated meat company in history. Dishes made with the product, like the one pictured here provided by Upside's press kit, don't look lab-grown — which is arguably a good thing. The FDA consultation doesn't mean that Upside's products will immediately be loaded onto grocery store shelves, though. The agency explains that, in the next stage, the United States Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA-FSIS) will step in for its own set of inspections and approvals of both Upside's manufacturing facility and the product itself. 

USDA-FSIS will also assist Upside in choosing the best label for the product — as the FDA states in a letter to Upside, "cultured chicken cell material" is not likely to hold much appeal for consumers.

Upside has been working on cultivated meat since 2015

The California company has been cultivating its craft for several years now. Upside says it achieved the world's first lab-grown beef meatball, chicken, and duck products, and recently purchased another cultivation company that produces lab-grown seafood. The startup has been funded by Bill Gates, Cargill, Tyson, and Whole Foods.

Lab-grown meat isn't just an expensive and drawn-out science project, though. Developing beef, pork, and poultry in vitro from the cells of just one animal can help to significantly reduce the harm that the livestock industry inflicts on the environment. A University of Oxford study found that cultured meat requires 7% to 45% less energy to be produced compared to the same amount of traditionally grown products. Lab-grown animal products could also produce up to 96% less greenhouse gas emissions, take up 99% less land space during production, and use significantly less water.

Oxford Wildlife Conservation Research Unit member Hanna Tuomisto, who led the university's study, said that the goal is not to replace conventional meat altogether — And even if they wanted to, that volume of production is currently impossible. However, cultured meat can be "a much more efficient and environmentally-friendly way of putting meat on the table," as well as a way to bring meat to food deserts and impoverished communities.