The USDA finally gives the green light to cell cultured meat

The Department of Agriculture on Wednesday gave the green light to three California-based companies to begin producing and selling lab-grown chicken in the United States, bringing the no-slaughter protein one step closer to American dinner plates.

The USDA announced that it issued grants for inspection to Upside Foods, Good Meat and Good Meat’s manufacturing partner, Joinn Biologics, the first companies aiming to bring the long-awaited product to the US market.

These companies harvest cells from viable animal tissue and grow edible meat under controlled conditions in bioreactors, meat they say will be identical to that grown conventionally. Alternatives to traditional animal agriculture are seen as a way to mitigate climate change, although how much it will improve on traditional livestock farming is a matter of debate, in part because the impact of how such a start-up industry scales up is difficult to predict.

Wednesday’s news followed an announcement this month that Good Meat and Upside Foods’ labels had been approved by the USDA — the agency has approved the term “cell cultured chicken” for packaging. And in November, the Food and Drug Administration declared a meat product developed by Upside to be safe for human consumption, clearing the way for products derived from real animal cells, but which do not require an animal to be slaughtered, to be sold in US grocery stores and restaurants.

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Dozens of major food companies are eager to debut cultured meats to the American public. Singapore has been the only country where these products have been legally sold to consumers.

US law requires all commercially sold meat and poultry to undergo routine inspections for safety and proper labeling. To accomplish this, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is placing inspectors in slaughterhouses and processing plants—and for the first time in history, will assign inspectors to cultured meat and poultry plants.

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“Applications are approved after a rigorous process, which includes assessment of a company’s food safety system,” a USDA spokeswoman said. “Based on this review, FSIS has issued the first three grants of inspection to establishments that manufacture FSIS-regulated products derived from animal cells. After a facility receives a grant of inspection, FSIS conducts inspection activities at the facility at least once per shift to verify the production of safe and correctly labeled product.

Upside’s CEO, Uma Valeti, said this marks a paradigm shift in meat production and is a milestone the company has been working toward since 2015. The company plans to have its products available first at one restaurant: Bar Crenn in San Francisco.

“We’re also running a contest on social media for a chance to be among the first in the U.S. to try our cultured chicken,” Valeti said.

Good Meat will also make its restaurant debut, with acclaimed chef José Andrés set to serve it up in one of his DC eateries

“Launching our cultured chicken in a restaurant setting is the perfect way to introduce consumers to real meat made in a whole new way. To be able to do that with José Andrés, one of the most respected chefs in the world, is a dream come true, says Andrew Noyes, the company’s head of global communications.

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Noyes said restaurants in Singapore have been serving the company’s cultured chicken since 2020, and that restaurant chefs are an effective introduction to a new food category for many consumers who may be a bit squeamish.

But there are other reasons why restaurants are a good place to start: scale and price. It may be years before these companies are ready to supply products to regional grocery chains that can compete on price with traditional animal agriculture products.

Nonetheless, said Dan Glickman, an advisory board member for Good Meat and a former congressman and agriculture secretary, Wednesday’s approval shows that the United States is a global leader in the alternative protein space. He applauded USDA’s commitment to accelerating agricultural innovation and economic opportunity.

Even the traditional meat industry, which has sparred with all-meat over label language and other issues, is encouraged by how the two food authorities have managed this brand new food group.

“We worked closely with Upside Foods to create a regulatory level playing field that ensured USDA had a role to play in the oversight of both traditional meat and cell-cultured products,” said Julie Anna Potts, executive director of the North American Meat Institute. “We look forward to continuing our work with Upside on future innovations.”

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