The Food and Drug Administration has cleared a California company’s “slaughter-free” chicken, putting lab-grown meat one step closer to restaurant menus and grocery store shelves in the United States.
On Wednesday afternoon, the agency said it had completed an evaluation of chicken from the company, Upside Foods, and had “no further questions” about the product’s safety, signaling that the agency considered it safe for consumption. It will probably take months, if not longer, before the product reaches consumers, and it first must get additional clearance from the Department of Agriculture.
“This is huge for the industry,” said Liz Specht, the vice president of science and technology at the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit focused on cell- and plant-based meat. “For the very first time, this is the F.D.A. giving the greenlight to a cultivated meat product.”
For nearly a decade, companies have been competing to bring the first lab-grown meat (or “cultivated” meat, the term the industry has recently rallied around) to market. In a process often compared to brewing beer, animal cells are grown in a controlled environment, creating a product that is biologically identical to conventional meat. But until now, cultivated meat had received regulatory approval only in Singapore, where Good Meat’s lab-grown chicken was greenlit in 2020.
Dr. Uma Valeti, the founder and chief executive of Upside Foods, said he was traveling in India for his father’s memorial service when he received the news from an employee, who he said had promised not to call him unless it was important.
“I don’t think I’m going to sleep anytime soon,” he said in an interview at 2:30 a.m. local time.
Dr. Valeti, a cardiologist, said he got the idea to create cell-cultured meat after using stem cells to repair patients’ hearts. He quit his job, moved to California and founded the company, formerly known as Memphis Meats, in 2015. The company has attracted prominent investors including Tyson Foods.
The news came as a surprise, Dr. Valeti said, because Upside Foods had been working to get the green light for many years. The next step is for the Department of Agriculture to develop an inspection process for the company’s production plants and approve a label for the finished product. Industry experts said that clearance from the Food and Drug Administration was the biggest hurdle for products seeking to go to market, and that they expected the chicken to receive confirmation from the Department of Agriculture in the coming months.
The agriculture department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service declined to share a timeline. “Cell-cultured meat and poultry products will be subject to the same food safety, sanitation and inspection regulations as other meat and poultry products to ensure that only safe and wholesome products enter U.S. commerce,” it said in a statement.
Upside Foods said it planned to offer the chicken in restaurants first before expanding to grocery stores.
The cultivated meat industry has gotten considerable attention and investment in recent years amid growing concerns about global warming, the treatment of animals and industrial farming. Lab-grown meat is seen as a more sustainable option compared with the traditional livestock sector, which accounts for nearly one-sixth of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Still, critics point to the lingering questions that surround the industry, and there is uncertainty about whether people will be willing to eat meat that was made in a lab, particularly considering consumer reluctance around other technological leaps in the past, such as genetically modified foods. Affordability also remains unclear, although prices have certainly decreased since the first cultivated burger was created in 2013 for more than $300,000.
The Food and Drug Administration’s decision could also pave the way for additional approvals both in the United States and abroad. “This sets a precedent,” Dr. Specht said. “Now we really shift focus towards what really matters in this industry, which is scale up.”