Upside’s cell-grown chicken is the first to receive FDA approval for its production method

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In a major first, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has just offered its safety blessing to a cultured meat product start-up. It completed its first pre-market consultation with Upside Foods to investigate human food made from the cultured cells of animals, concluding it had “no further questions” regarding how Upside produces its chicken.

“At this time, this is the only human or animal nutritional product for which the FDA has completed an evaluation,” the agency confirmed to TBEN via email.

Before you get too excited, the FDA noted that the pre-market consultation “is not an approval process,” but agreed with Upside’s safety conclusion on its products. Still, it is a historic milestone for cultured meat companies trying to scale up their products. Indeed, progress around the world has been slower than food entrepreneurs might like. Singapore was the first country to approve the sale of cultured meat products, with Eat Just the first and only company to sell its lab-grown chicken there.

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As Upside Foods explains, the company will now work with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to secure remaining approvals before the farmed chicken can be sold to consumers. The company did not provide a timetable for when that will happen, but says “more details on launch timing will follow.”

The FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) say these requirements include facility registration for the cell-culture portion of the process, a manufacturing inspection, and the food itself receiving an inspection mark from the FSIS before it can enter the US market. This includes making sure it is properly regulated and labeled, the agency said.

“We are already in discussions with multiple companies about various foods made from cultured animal cells, including foods made from seafood cells that will be subject to exclusive oversight by the FDA,” the FDA said in a written statement. “Our goal is to support innovation in food technologies, while always keeping the production of safe food as our priority. Human food made with cultured animal cells must meet the same strict requirements, including safety requirements, as any other food.”

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Although Upside’s chicken product is now considered safe, price-wise, is it practical? As we previously reported, making cultured meat products is expensive and the scale is not yet close to meeting the demand for meat around the world.

What is striking is that there is a lot of activity going on in this space. This week, Meatable unveiled its hybrid approach of lab-grown meat and plant-based protein to get to market faster. Meanwhile, another cultured meat startup, Vow, announced a rather large Series A round — $49.2 million — and is leveraging that existing Singaporean network to get its exotic meats, such as kangaroo and alpaca, into restaurants.

One thing is certain: the FDA making a final move for Upside Foods will hopefully be a “rising tide lifts all boats” moment for the cultured meat industry.

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Rosie Wardle, co-founder and partner of Synthesis Capital, which was part of UPSIDE’s $400 million Series C round earlier this year, seems to think so. She said via email that Synthesis sees this as “one of the most important milestones for the future of the food industry to date.”

Especially since the cultured meat method is estimated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 96% through less water, land use and energy than the traditional way of making meat with animals.

“Our own research indicates that the growth of alternative proteins will continue exponentially through the late 2020s and early 2030s, with the industry reaching dominant market share around 2035,” added Wardle. “The FDA approval for cultured meat is an important step in that direction and we believe this announcement will have an overwhelmingly positive impact on the broader alternative protein market.”

We’ve reached out to Upside Foods for comment and will update the story with any comments.