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Lab-grown chicken gets green light from FDA for first time

Lab-grown chicken gets green light from FDA for first time

Those concerned about the ethics of eating meat, but still eager to partake in the typical Thanksgiving feast, may not have to choke on the furkey for too long.

It’s thanks to the efforts of fledgling “cultured meat” companies bent on the seemingly impossible task of creating real meat without death and the associated environmental damage. Seemingly more impossible still, regulators are beginning to smile at the industry’s new mission.

Last week the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) (boo, hiss) completed his very first pre-market consultation of cultured chicken produced by Upside Foods. The agency said the Berkeley, Calif., company’s process for producing lab-grown chicken from harvested live chicken cells has resulted in meat that is safe for human consumption.

Pending approval from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the company may be able to market its cultured chicken.

“We’re early days, but the green light from the FDA is opening the floodgates,” says Eric Schulze, vice president of regulatory and public policy at Upside. “We work on any meat commonly eaten as food.”

Schulze tells Raison that Upside can produce between 5,000 and 400,000 pounds of cultured meat at its Engineering, Manufacturing and Innovation Center (EPIC) production facility in the city of Emeryville, California.

It is at the EPIC facility that the company takes samples of small cells of muscle, fat and tendon tissue from live animals and glues them into large stainless steel tanks where they are “fed” with water, sugar, amino acids and other basic substances. nutrients.

“They’re grown in what looks a lot like, I would say, a beer brewery or a dairy-like facility,” Schulze says. “The goal of the whole process is to take this cell that we’ve identified and grow into billions of cells.”

Upside Foods’ plan is to soon migrate to a commercial facility capable of producing up to 15 million pounds of cultured meat, poultry and seafood for sale in restaurants and grocery stores.

The argument of the nascent cultured meat industry is that it can produce a product with the same taste and nutritional value as normal meat, but without necessarily having to kill any animals. Growing meat in labs will also theoretically reduce the land needed for farms, and all the emissions and destruction of natural habitat that come with it.

There are currently 42 cultured meat companies operating in the United States, although Upside remains the only one with any government approval. Singapore has approved two products from a cultured meat company. There are 151 cultured meat companies in the world, according to the Good Food Institute (GFI).

Madeline Cohen, regulatory attorney at GFI, says the FDA and USDA have been pretty transparent in terms of the regulatory requirements that cultured food companies must meet to market their products.

In 2019, the two agencies signed a joint agreement on how they would regulate cultured meat products.

The FDA is responsible for pre-market verification that the processes used by cultured meat companies create meat that is safe for human consumption. It already does this for pharmaceuticals, but generally not for foodstuffs.

The USDA is then responsible for inspecting the actual facilities and regulating the labeling of cultured meat, poultry, and catfish products (cultured seafood remains the exclusive domain of the FDA).

Labeling is what poses the greatest regulatory risk to the industry, Cohen says.

A number of states have already passed laws restricting what plant-based and cultured meat companies can call their products, often with the explicit intent of protecting traditional meat producers.

“Some of these laws carry severe penalties that can be quite financially ruinous for a business if it faces a penalty per product per day,” Cohen says. Complying with these laws isn’t always easy either.

Large-scale food distributors are often regional, which means food producers don’t necessarily know in which states their products will end up being sold.

“If you need to keep a certain product out of Missouri or you need a certain label on a cultured meat label, you’ll probably have to use the same label throughout the region so that one of your products never ends up in Missouri,” Cohen said.

Such labeling laws in Louisiana and California have been successfully challenged on the basis of the First Amendment.

How they will end up being federally labeled remains to be seen. The FDA and USDA are still developing standards for cultured meat products. The USDA said it would approve product-by-product labels until it finalizes more formal regulations.

That doesn’t give companies a lot of certainty when they’re trying to bring products to market.

Right now, many of these regulatory headaches are mostly theoretical. As mentioned, Upside is the only company that is able to present its products to consumers.

Schulze says Upside’s chicken will be served in restaurants first, before hopefully making it to grocery stores.

On when people might feast on cultured turkey for Thanksgiving, he declined to make predictions.

“I think 2023 is going to be an interesting year,” says Schulze. “We will have the first cultured meat product on the market to compete with traditional meat.”

So maybe by next Thanksgiving, a trendy restaurant somewhere can serve turkey leg while leaving the turkey where it came from still standing.

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