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USDA Approves First Lab-Grown Meat in U.S., But Scientists, Food Safety Experts Aren’t Sold on It

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on Wednesday approved the sale of lab-grown meat for the first time, giving two California-based food technology startups the green light to sell chicken grown in a lab from animal cells, The Associated Press (AP) reported.

The approval granted to Upside Foods and Good Meat — the first two companies to go through the regulatory approval process — makes the U.S. the second country in the world, behind Singapore, to allow sales of lab-grown or so-called “cultivated” meat.

The meat is made from cells from a living animal, a fertilized egg or a “special bank of stored cells” and cultivated in steel tanks. Over a series of weeks, it grows into sheets or masses, depending on the company, of muscle and connective tissue that are then formed into the shape of chicken cutlets and sausages, and cooked as food.

Despite the mainstream media boosterism around lab-grown meat’s alleged environmental benefits, many consumers are skeptical or even squeamish — either out of concerns for safety or simply because “it just sounds weird,” according to a recent poll by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

It is also extremely expensive to produce and cannot yet be produced at scale. Experts also question its safety.

“It is a dream come true,” said Uma Valeti, CEO of Upside Foods, in an interview with Reuters. “It marks a new era.”

“This announcement that we’re now able to produce and sell cultivated meat in the United States is a major moment for our company, the industry and the food system,” said Josh Tetrick, co-founder of Eat Just and CEO of its subsidiary, Good Meat, which makes the lab meat, in a statement on Wednesday morning.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) called the meat a “food revolution.”

The companies received USDA approval for federal inspections required to sell meat and poultry in the U.S., several months after the FDA said the meat was “safe for human consumption” last year and the USDA approved their commercial labels earlier this month.

Eric Schulze, Ph.D., Upside Food’s vice president of regulation and public policy, navigated the company through the regulatory process, ensuring the lab-grown meat was not subject to extra regulatory hurdles beyond that of any other regular meat product, “Because our chicken is meat!” Upside states on its website.

Prior to joining Upside, Schulze worked at the FDA, regulating the biotech industry.

The companies plan to roll out the product publicly at exclusive restaurants — both are working with Michelin-starred chefs. Chef Dominique Crenn will serve up Upside’s lab chicken at San Francisco’s Bar Crenn, and Good Meat products will debut in one of several Washington, D.C., restaurants owned by celebrity chef José Andrés.

Other celebrity chefs are less enthusiastic about the meat. Chef Andrew Gruel tweeted:

Upside Foods also announced a “contest” to motivate consumers to enter for a chance to be among the first U.S. consumers to try the startup’s cell-cultivated chicken.

And academic researchers are working to figure out out how to increase consumer acceptance of the meat, some with funding from the USDA.

How the ‘sausage’ gets made

Cell-cultivated meat is made using techniques developed in the biopharma industry. Cells from live animals or a cell bank — where “immortalized” cells are produced from cultured stem cells — are grown in large steel tanks called cultivators, or bioreactors.

The cells are “fed” a mixture of sugars, amino and fatty acids, salts, and vitamins to proliferate quickly.

The patented processes used by the different companies vary. Upside Foods produces large sheets of muscle and connective tissue together that it then forms into shapes that look like chicken cutlets and sausages. Growing the meat takes about three weeks.

Good Meat grows the cells into large masses rather than sheets. “The produced chicken product resembles a conventional chicken product,” Good Meat wrote in its dossier to the FDA on the safety of its product.

Both companies have pilot plants for meat production in California. Upside Foods produces its meat in a 70,000-square-foot facility in Emeryville and Good Meat makes its meat at a 100,000-square-foot facility in Alameda.

Industry experts estimate the meat won’t be widely available for seven to 10 years.

The AP reported that neither company would divulge the cost of a chicken cutlet. They only said the price had been reduced significantly since they began sampling the meat.

Eventually, they hope it will sell for about $20/pound, which they say is the average price for organic chicken.

Both companies anticipate expanding their operations into other kinds of meat.

‘Disturbing’ use of genetic engineering to promote continuous cell growth

The production methods used to create lab-grown meat raise a series of human health and food safety concerns, according to Jaydee Hanson and Julia Ranney at the Center for Food Safety (CFS).

They wrote that public patents from companies like Memphis Meats (rebranded as Upside Foods in 2021) and Eat Just (Good Meat) show the companies use growth factors that could promote the development of cancer-like or mutated cells in the lab meat that could be absorbed into the human bloodstream after digestion.

In an interview with The Defender, Hanson said:

“The company also notes that it is using genetic engineering to promote continuous growth of the cells. This is disturbing, in that it is likely that the genes being manipulated can promote cancers.”

He added that “cancer-causing genes should not be used in food production. Food additives that cause cancer are illegal. Unfortunately, the company does not list exactly which genes it is using for genetically engineered cells.”

Speaking on a panel last year that addressed concerns related to lab-grown meat, panelist Michael Hansen, Ph.D., senior staff scientist with Consumer Reports, also questioned the safety of lab-grown meat.

He said the “inputs” used in cell-cultured lab meat are actually “recombinants” — manipulated DNA segments — which is “more complicated and disconcerting” than the genetically engineered products — which have been flagged as dangerous to human health — found in plant-based meats such as the Impossible Burger.

Panelist Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), said he agreed sustainable sources of protein are needed, but cautioned the products will be “proprietary” and “we won’t know their effect or what they are.”

Panelists also raised concerns about the effects novel ingredients may have on the human microbiome.

According to CFS, cultivator-grown meat has a higher likelihood of bacterial or other pathogenic growth and it doesn’t have the same immunity or ability to excrete toxins that an animal would have because it lacks those systems.

That could make meat grown in bioreactor vats more susceptible to those things unless it is treated with antibiotics or similar treatments.

As recently reported by The Defender, it was revealed in 2019 that Memphis Meats was employing CRISPR gene-editing technology as part of its patented process for curating lab-grown meat.

In an October 2022 interview with The Defender, Claire Robinson, managing editor of GMWatch, said CRISPR may have unintended effects that can adversely impact human health.

“Overall, due to the novel nature of lab-cultured ‘meat,’ the lack of transparency from the companies involved, and the myriad potential health risks to consumers, rigorous regulation of this product is vitally important,” CFS wrote.

Environmental impact ‘orders of magnitude’ worse than animal production

Proponents of lab-grown meat — the companies developing it, nonprofitscreated to promote it, and media organizations and researchers funded by industry investors — say growing meat in bioreactors is key to reducing the environmental impact of industrial meat production and to ending animal suffering.

But the environmental benefits are largely assumed, based on the known impacts of the existing industrial meat system, rather than actually measured. Or they are estimated based on narrow and potentially misleading metrics.

Recent research from the University of California, Davis made headlines when it reported that lab-grown meat’s environmental impact is “likely to be ‘orders of magnitude’ higher” than that of regular animal-grown meat, based on current and near-term future production methods.

The research, based on lab-grown beef production, assessed energy needed and greenhouse gas emissions in all stages of production and found the global warming potential of lab-based meat was 25 times greater than that of animal meat.

Similar research by investigators in the LEAP (Livestock, Environment and People) program at the Oxford Martin School, found that over the long term, it was likely that lab-grown meat’s environmental impacts would be more substantial than that of conventionally grown animals.

Gates, Branson and other Venture Capitalists behind push for lab-grown meat

More than 100 companies are developing lab-grown meat.

The industry was valued at about $247 million in 2022, according to the market research firm Grand View Research, and could grow to $25 billion by 2030, the consulting firm McKinsey & Company projected.

Lab-grown meat companies are backed by nearly $3 billion in investments from meat industry corporations such as Cargill, Tyson and JBS, venture capital firmssuch as Blue Yard Capital, Union Square Ventures, S2G Ventures and Emerald Technology Ventures, billionaires such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson, and government agencies across the world, including the Qatar Investment Authorityand the USDA.

Good Meat’s parent company, Eat Just, formerly known as Hampton Creek, began with backing from Bill Gates, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and a board that included former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and Google DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman.

But the company, whose first products included vegan mayo and other plant-based products, was plagued by scandals — including allegations by employees that the company “stretched the truth” on its lab-grown meat labels to meet deadlines — that led to the resignation of its entire board, with only its CEO Tetrick left.

Tetrick rebranded the company Eat Just and got new funding from Qatar, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital and others.

Upside Foods, formerly known as Memphis Meats, has attracted more than $600 million in R&D investments, including from Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Elon Musk’s brother Kimbal Musk and meat giant Cargill. estimates Upside Food’s market valuation as ranging between $1 billion and $10 billion.

Gates is on record saying, “All rich countries should move to 100% synthetic beef.”

According to Upside Foods, other investors in the company include Tyson Foods, the world’s largest poultry producer, Whole Foods — owned by Jeff Bezos and Amazon — and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, who is also part of the Good Food Institute (GFI) advisory council along with Valeti, Upside’s CEO.

The GFI is a multi-million dollar international nonprofit organization whose mission is to “accelerate alternative protein innovation.” Its “experts” are quoted in most mainstream media articles about lab-grown meat.

The largest donor to GFI — and the only one to substantively fund it — is the Open Philanthropy project, one of whose main funders is Dustin Moskovitz, co-founder of Facebook along with Mark Zuckerberg.

Open Philanthropy also funds the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, Rockefeller University, the Clinton Health Access Initiative and investigations into industrializing insect meat production.

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