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In ‘a major step forward’ Upside Foods and Eat Just earn USDA labels for their cultivated chicken

Upside Foods cultivated chicken sliced on a plate with lettuce and an illustration of chef Robert Downey Jr
Image Credit: Upside Foods // Illustrations by Nate Merritt // Graphic by Miquéla Thornton

Cultivated meat — meat cultured from real animal cells in a lab — just got one step closer to being on grocery store shelves, on your plate, and into your stomach.

Two leading cultivated meat companies, Upside Foods and plant-based egg maker Eat Just which makes the brand Good Meat, earned coveted labels from the U.S. Department of Agriculture this month. For the first time ever, the USDA granted the label: ‘cell-cultivated chicken.’

According to Upside, the approval means the department, which has the sacred duty of approving all labels of non-seafood cultivated meat products, feels these companies have demonstrated full compliance with pre-market labeling requirements.

Now, Upside says the next step is to obtain a Grant of Inspection (GOI) for the startup’s Engineering, Production, and Innovation Center (EPIC), which it says can produce 400,000 pounds of cultivated meat per year. Eat Just is pursuing this process as well.

Not accounting for fish or seafood, the average American consumes an average of 250 pounds of meat a year (whoa), according to a 2021 overview from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Of this, the majority is chicken, as more and more people are replacing beef with chicken.

While this is generally for health reasons, the environmental impact of conventional beef outweighs chicken.

Nevertheless, poultry, the most consumed meat in the country, and the second most consumed meat in the world (only a mere percentage point behind pork) represents an area ripe for innovation not only because our chicken consumption still has a massive impact on the planet, even if it’s not as ginormous as beef, but also because the poultry industry will likely take a hit in meat quality and egg production due to heat stress as the climate crisis worsens.

close up of Good Meat's cultivated chicken
Image Credit: Good Meat

An alternative will be necessary not only for climate mitigation but for adaptation as well.

Currently, both Upside and Eat Just are working with the department to receive the grant which is the last remaining item in the pre-market regulatory process before the company can commercially produce and sell its cultivated chicken in the United States.

Previously, Eat Just made history with the world’s first cultivated meat approval in Singapore in 2020. Now it wants to repeat it in the States.

According to Berkeley, California-based Upside — which announced the label yesterday, less than a week after Eat Just received its approval on June 8 — the cultivated meats are subject to the same approval process as conventional meat, and now, the GOI is the only thing standing between it and your taste buds.

Reportedly, the rollout will be starting small, with a select few restaurants. The first stop will be three-Michelin star Chef Dominique Crenn’s restaurant Bar Crenn in San Francisco.

Eat Just is also going with a flashy restaurant debut as in 2021, the San Francisco-based company announced a partnership with celebrity chef José Andrés, who will be the first to serve the product after it officially achieves all regulatory approvals. With more than 30 restaurants across the country, the partnership with the José Andrés Group could help grease the wheels of cultivated meat acceptance.

According to Jennifer Stojkovic, author of The Future of Food is Female and founder of the Vegan Women Summit, via LinkedIn, this is “big news.”

“At this rate, consumers in the U.S. may see cultivated meat on menus by the end of 2023,” she wrote.

While Stojkovic says “We are still years out from retail distribution,” she noted that “things will move quicker as capacity and scale is achieved.” Following its restaurant debut, Upside hopes to bring its consumer products like sausages, nuggets, and dumplings to the direct market.

“The USDA’s approval of our label marks a major step forward towards our goal of creating a more humane and sustainable food system,” Dr. Uma Valeti, CEO and Founder of Upside Foods said in a statement.

And she’s right — traditional meats come with a long list of environmental and social issues, whereas the cultivated meat industry leaves planet-warming emissions, Black and brown community pollution, deforestation, water scarcity and pollution, and, animal cruelty of factory farming behind.

The future can be different.

“Obtaining the USDA’s GOI will clear the way for commercial production and sales and allow us to bring our delicious Upside chicken to consumers for the first time,” Valeti said.

The announcement comes after the startup received the world’s first ‘green light’ from the Food & Drug Administration last year, with Eat Just receiving it earlier this year in March. According to Stojkovic, this won’t be the only slices of cultivated meat good news this year.

“Numerous other cultivated meat companies from both the U.S. and outside of the U.S. have applied for FDA approval and more approval letters are expected in coming months,” she wrote in her post.

Of those companies currently waiting for FDA approval, is FootPrint Coalition-backed Wildtype, which makes sushi-grade cultivated salmon. Like many other cultivated meat companies, Wildtype has some potential restaurant partnerships on the hook that it aims to reel in for its post-regulatory approval debut.

“To see a technology that belonged in the dreams of a few believers come to life is the real gift,” Stojkovic wrote. “There is no greater goal of innovation than that to eliminate suffering. This is why we do it.”

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