1 year later: Strides and hiccups for the cultivated meat industry (2024)

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June 21, 2023 was a historic day for cultivated meat. After the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued grants of inspection to Upside Foods and Eat Just, both companies officially were able to enter their cultivated chicken products to market.

Since 2013, when Mark Post created the first hamburger product using cultured cells, the industry had been waiting for this federal announcement.

Both companies tout their ability to create a product that looks, tastes and feels like that of traditional animal-based meat but also better-for-you and the planet.

But this past year has been a complicated landscape for the industry. Between limited access to capital and political roadblocks, the future of cultivated meat feels very uncertain.

“Access to capital has definitely tightened,” Dr. Elliott Swartz, head scientist for the cultivated meat division at the Good Food Institute in an interview with Food Dive.

“There is now a big role for governments in particular to take that opportunity to invest in research and development and an infrastructure for cultivated meat," he said.

Access to capital will continue to be a challenge for the industry for the next few years, but philanthropists are helping. Jeff Bezos, founder and former CEO of Amazon, for example, opened a Center for Excellence for Alternative Proteins at North Carolina State University.

One step forward, two steps back?

After Upside Foods and Eat Just achieved the final steps in the approval process for sale by the U.S. government, the leading California companies launched the U.S. debut of their products at two restaurants run by noted chefs.

Michelin star chef Dominique Crenn debuted Upside Foods’ chicken at Bar Crenn in San Francisco, and acclaimed chef Jose Andres served Eat Just’s Good Meat chicken at one of his restaurants in Washington, D.C.

But both restaurants put service of the products to a stop a few months later. The original details of the partnerships were not clear, although both companies said the restaurant launches were to gain feedback from consumers.

The partnership for Upside Foods with Crenn was to test products in the luxury food service space, an environment where consumers are likely to experiment, COO Amy Chen said to Food Dive in a previous interview.

After China Chilcano pulled Eat Just’s cultivated chicken from the menu last year, up until February, Bar Crenn was the last place in the U.S. consumers could try cultivated meat.

“As far as Upside Foods, the product that they released was a structured chicken breast product and was 99% cultivated animal cells, a difficult product to manufacture,” said Shwartz. “This was a moonshot product to them – scaling of that product has not gone as efficiently as it was initially desired.”

As a result of the high costs to produce a mostly cultivated product, a lot of companies have created hybrid products that include a mixture of cultivated animal cells and other plant-based proteins.

In May, Eat Just’s Good Meat partnered with premium grocer Huber’s Butchery in Singapore to sell its new product Good Meat 3, which uses 3% of cultivated chicken, combined with other plant proteins. Its Good Meat 3 product allowed the company to lower production costs and sell the product at a competitive price, according to Eat Just.

Swartz said these hybrid products are a way the industry can move forward, as production is much cheaper.

Upside Foods, whose first iteration of cultured chicken was 99% cultivated cells, is currently reworking its product to be more of a hybrid, said Swartz. Hence, the company has to wait to get regulatory approval, again.

“In the U.S., there’s a lot of companies that have been waiting for regulatory approval for quite a while,” said Shwartz.

The wait, he said, is in part due to turnover at the Food And Drug Administration with the staff that’s in charge of food safety for cultivated meat. “There has been a switch of evaluators and so it’s taken a bit of time to materialize how fast they can review and approve applications.”

In terms of why both Upside Foods and Eat Just are no longer available to consumers in the U.S, Swartz said it’s hard to say what motivates individual companies, but that the goal from an initial product approval is always to get consumer feedback, and then adjust strategy accordingly.

In February, Upside Foods halted the building of a production plant nicknamed Rubicon, a 187,000-square-foot facility slated to have an initial capacity of millions of pounds of bioreactor-brewed meat per year, making it one of the largest planned factories.

Reports said that CEO Uma Valeti wanted to focus instead on the Emeryville, California facility, which would cost less. In am email seen by WIRED, Valeti said the company was making “selective role eliminations” and “other changes” that would impact 16 people across the organization.

Meanwhile, Eat Just said it revised plans to build a large-scale U.S. facility with ten 250,000 liter bioreactors and is “not attempting to raise money for a large-scale cultivated meat facility right now.”

Instead, Eat Just will focus on process development at its plant in Alameda, California and is working on new products the company claims will be easier to scale at large.

Eat Just CEO Josh Tetrik told AgFunderNews in March that the company has not sold any cultivated chicken to U.S. consumers following its small-scale restaurant test last summer, but will keep selling the product in Singapore on a tiny scale.

Progress overseas

While Eat Just and Upside Foods are halting or slowing production in the U.S., overseas in Israel and Singapore, other food tech startups are making headway.

Throughout the past year, Israeli company Aleph Farms got approval for sale in Israel, a company called Vow received approval for their product in Singapore and was able to sell in two restaurants, and Good Meat sold its hybrid cultivated chicken product in Singapore.

A stark contrast to its availability in the U.S., consumers in Singapore are now able to go into a grocery store, and walk home with a cultivated chicken product.

“One key data point is that there are dozens of other applications being reviewed in the US and Singapore,” said Swartz, “so there are a lot of companies waiting for that approval and there are a cohort of companies moving into production facilities.”

Economic — and now political — bottlenecks

As far as political issues hampering the industry, Swartz said it’s “disappointing” to see politicians take a stance on consumer choice in food — something he says should not be controlled.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he was saving the beef industry from the “global elite” when he signed a bill on May 2 outlawing cultivated meat in the Sunshine State.

Shortly after, Alabama became the second state to ban lab-grown meat.

Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Wyoming also all implemented standards requiring cultivated meat producers to state clearly that their products do not contain animal-based ingredients.

“The concerns are clearly masked by catering to the existing industry, and this sort of protectionism that comes across in the statements, they will say that they are concerned about safety,” said Swartz.

Proponents of bans that prohibit the sale and production of cultivated meat products, though, say that it protects cattle ranchers and farmers and prohibits an “elitist” class from promoting unnatural foods.

“What this really does is it removes consumer choice as well as stifling innovation for a new, promising technology,” said Swartz. “When you look at the history of technology development in general, I think there are useful analogies that one could make.

“For instance, we used to farm ice out of frozen lakes in the North and ship it to cities across the U.S. When refrigeration technology was invented that enabled us for the first time to make ice without having to rely on just natural weather processes and cold temperatures, " said Swartz. “And people actually had a lot of backlash against that.”

1 year later: Strides and hiccups for the cultivated meat industry (2024)
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