It’s a food revolution in the making. But it’s not happening down on the farm. Instead, it’s happening in labs where cells taken from live chickens, cows, or other livestock are grown in bioreactors similar to those that make beer. That’s where they’re immersed in a carefully regulated nutrient solution that spurs them to grow until they become pieces of meat.

An important part of this is that no animals need to be killed.

As sci-fi as this may sound, this is the same process that happens in naturally occurring cell proliferation and tissue developmental processes in living animals. The final product is not “fake meat,” as it has sometimes been called, but actual meat.

In this case, it’s lab-grown chicken made by UPSIDE Foods (https://upsidefoods.com/about/) of California that’s at the forefront of the food revolution that’s occurring here in the United States.

“Our chicken looks, cooks, and tastes like chicken because it is real chicken,” says a company website.

In a breakthrough announcement last week, cultivated meat maker UPSIDE Foods said it received a green light from the FDA for its chicken grown from animal cells. This is the first regulatory approval for any cultivated meat in the United States.

Uma Valeti

“This is a truly historic milestone that we’ve been working toward since the company was founded in 2015,” said cardiologist Uma Valeti, MD, CEO and founder of UPSIDE Foods. “It marks a major step toward a new era in meat production and brings us closer toward our ultimate goal of making meat a force for good. This greenlight paves the way for our path to market in the United States, and brings us one giant step closer to arriving on consumers’ plates. We’ve never been closer to building a more sustainable, humane and delicious world.”

According to a statement from the company, “the no-questions” letter from the FDA (https://www.fda.gov/media/163261/download) indicates regulators have found nothing unsafe about the cultured chicken the company makes.

“We have no questions at this time about UPSIDE’s conclusion that foods comprised of or containing cultured chicken cell material resulting from the production process . . . are as safe as comparable foods produced by other methods,” the agency’s no questions letter states.

The FDA also evaluated the firm’s production process and the cultured cell material made by the production process. They evaluated the establishment of cell lines and cell banks, manufacturing controls, and all components and inputs.

In addition to meeting the FDA’s requirements, which include facility registration for the cell culture portion of the process, the firm will need a grant of inspection from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) for the manufacturing establishment. The food itself also requires a mark of inspection from USDA before it can enter the U.S. market.

Meanwhile, the company is closely coordinating with FSIS to ensure that its chicken is properly regulated and labeled.

“We are thrilled at FDA’s historic announcement that, after a rigorous evaluation, UPSIDE Foods has become the first company in the world to receive the FDA’s greenlight for cultivated chicken,” David Kay, director of communications at UPSIDE Foods, said.

He pointed out that “At scale, cultivated meat is projected to use substantially less water and land than conventionally-produced meat.”

Even so, cultivated meat companies still require a lot of electricity to grow products.

As for antibiotics, which are typically used in meat animals and poultry to fight disease and speed the animals’ growth, the lab meat researchers say they don’t need to use antibiotics in their products because the sterile laboratory process makes them unnecessary. Nor do they need to use growth-promoting hormones.

“Clean, safe and humane,” is how cultured meat advocates describe the advantage of this technology over conventional methods of raising livestock, which typically involve tons and tons of manure.

Important to keep in mind in all of this is that cell-based meats, also called cultured meats, are not plant-based “meatless meats” such as products like MorningStar Farms’ chicken nuggets, Beyond Burger and Awesome Burgers, which are made from a variety of vegetables.

Looking to the future

“The world is experiencing a “food revolution,” said a statement from FDA Commissioner Robert Califf and Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition Director Susan Mayne.

Of the other lab-based meat ventures in the United States, UPSIDE Foods is closest to being able to produce meat at scale. Just more than a year ago, the company opened a 53,000-square-foot facility in the San Francisco Bay Area that will be able to make 400,000 pounds of meat a year — enough to serve a significant number of restaurant customers.

Meanwhile, in addition to working toward full approval to sell the product, UPSIDE Foods is planning to build its first commercial-scale facility. This plant will have an annual capacity of tens of millions of pounds of cultivated meat. UPSIDE hopes to have the facility up and running in the next couple of years, said a company official.

Barry Carpenter, a former president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute and an UPSIDE Foods adviser, applauded the FDA’s announcement.

“Demand for meat is skyrocketing, and we need every tool in our toolkit to feed the world,” he said in a statement. “Cultivated meat, along with conventionally-produced meat, will play a crucial role in enabling our food system to get to this point.”

On the environmental front, cell-based meats require vastly less water and land compared to raising livestock in the conventional way.

Advocates predict that cultured meat will reduce the need to slaughter animals for food and will help with the climate crisis. They say that the current food system is responsible for about a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, most of which are from animal agriculture.

FDA officials say that through its “no questions” approval that the agency “is showing its commitment to supporting innovation in the food supply.” President Biden has also recently said the country needs to move forward in innovative approaches to producing food.

The agency stressed that the FDA’s first priority is food safety. Food made with cultured animal cells, the agency wrote, must meet the same stringent requirements as other food regulated by the FDA.

Looking beyond UPSIDE Foods, FDA said it is ready to work with additional firms developing cultured animal cell food and production processes to ensure their food is safe and lawful under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

“We encourage firms to have these conversations with us often and early in their product and process development phase, well ahead of making any submission to us,” said an FDA statement. “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. 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.”

Still not there yet

The FDA’s review of the first-ever cell-cultured food for U.S. approval is a start, but grossly inadequate, according to a statement from the Center for Food Safety (https://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/press-releases/6768/statement-on-fdas-first-ever-approval-of-lab-grown-chicken). “In this “pre-market consultation,” neither the company nor the FDA presented the actual data from tests looking at the effects of raising these cells in fetal bovine serum and enzymes from the intestines and pancreas of animals. 

Likewise, while the company notes that it uses genetic engineering to keep the cells growing, it fails to share which genes are being used, the Center’s statement says. This is vital information that consumers and policymakers need to know to make informed decisions in the best interests of public health. We should make certain that genes linked to cancer are not being used. In short, the documents shared by the FDA and the UPSIDE Foods Co. show us where more research and more transparent data are needed, but this is a woefully deficient review by the FDA. In its review of the company’s documents, the FDA states it has “no further questions” about this experimental product’s safety—but we have many more questions. In the name of protecting public health, consumers and policymakers deserve better.

Food safety and chickens

Salmonella, a foodborne disease widespread in conventionally raised chickens, where chickens are often raised in crowded conditions and therefore more vulnerable to becoming infected with Salmonella, which can in turn infect people who eat the contaminated meat. This poses a potentially deadly risk to consumers, said Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at Consumer Reports.

But this is not a cause for concern in cell-based meats because they are produced in sterile conditions.

Consumer Reports estimates that 1.35 million Americans get sick from salmonella every year and nearly a quarter of those cases come from chicken or turkey.

The good news is that the USDA has recently proposed a new strategy to reduce salmonella illnesses from poultry. Under the proposal, poultry producers would be required to test flocks for salmonella before slaughter and provide documentation of salmonella levels or serotypes to processing plants. The requirement is meant to incentivize plants to implement measures to reduce the salmonella load in the final poultry product. USDA is also considering the adoption of a final product standard to ensure that poultry contaminated with salmonella likely to make people sick is not allowed on the market. 

More about chickens

  • Chicken broiler meat is the most consumed meat in the U.S., with an average person eating 96.4 pounds per capita, according to Sentient Media.
  • In 2020, 9.8 billion broiler chicks were hatched in the U.S.
  • The number of chickens in the U.S. is growing, and chicken production has even overtaken pig farming to become the top source of reared meat worldwide.
  • There are currently 25.9 billion chickens living in the world, according to the latest data from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Most of these chickens are in China and the U.S., and more than half of them are in Asia. Chickens clearly outnumber humans on the planet by a massive number.

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