In a residential neighborhood in Emeryville, California, a rather unusual facility has taken shape. The factory, which almost looks like a brewery, is actually a meat factory — but rather than slaughtering animals, it uses bioreactors to “grow” meat. According to the company that built it, it can already produce 50,000 pounds of meat per year, and has room to expand production to 400,000 pounds.
Upside Foods (previously called Memphis Meats) started out in 2015 as one of the pioneers of the nascent food-growing industry. Now, just 6 years later, there are over 80 companies working to bring lab-grown meat to the public — including one in Singapore which is already selling cultured chicken.
The fact that such a factory can be built (while regulatory approval is still pending and Upside can’t technically sell its products) already is striking. Upside’s new facility is located in an area known more for its restaurants than its factories, but with $200 million in funding and ever-growing consumer interest, the company seems to be sending a strong message.
The new facility is a testament to how much technology in this field has grown. The company can not only produce ground meat, but cuts of meat as well. Chicken breast is the first planned product, and the company says they can produce many types of meat, from duck to lobster.
“When we founded UPSIDE in 2015, it was the only cultivated meat company in a world full of skeptics,” says Uma Valeti, CEO and Founder of UPSIDE Foods. “When we talked about our dream of scaling up production, it was just that — a dream. Today, that dream becomes a reality. The journey from tiny cells to EPIC has been an incredible one, and we are just getting started.”
There’s still no word yet on how much these products will cost, but it’s probably not gonna be the cheapest meat on the market. Although lab-grown meat is nearing cost-competitiveness with slaughter meat, it’s not quite there yet. Besides, Upside already announced that their chicken products will be served by three-Michelin-starred chef Dominique Crenn. Crenn is the only chef in the US to be awarded three Michelin stars, and she famously removed meat from her menus in 2018 to make a statement against the negative impact of animal agriculture on the global environment and the climate crisis.
Not for sale yet
Upside isn’t the only company to recently receive a lot of money in funding. Their San Francisco rival Eat Just, which became the first company in the world to sell lab-grown meat, received more than $450 million in funding. A 2021 McKinsey & Company report estimates that the cultivated meat industry will surge to $25 billion by 2030. However, in the US (and almost every country on the globe) cultured meat isn’t approved for sale yet.
The FDA has largely been silent on lab-grown meat since 2019, and while many expect a verdict soon, there’s no guarantee of a timeline. Even if the FDA allows the sale and consumption of lab-grown meat in the US, it will likely do so on a product-by-product basis rather than opening the floodgates to lab-grown meat as a whole. In the EU, things will likely move even slower.
However, pressure is mounting. In addition to the obvious ethical advantages of lab-grown meat, its environmental impact may also be less severe than that of slaughter meat. However, this has not been confirmed since we don’t yet have a large-scale production facility, and the few available studies don’t have definitive conclusions.
This is why having a working factory is so exciting, because it could offer the first glimpses of how sustainable the practice actually is. Upside says the facility uses 100% renewable energy and has expressed its desire to have a third party verify the facility’s sustainability by mid-2022.
Of course, all of this depends on the regulatory approval that may or may not come anytime soon. In the meantime, the factory is ready and good to go.