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By: Phil Lempert, The Supermarket Guru

Since the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued approval to grow chicken from cellular-cultivated technology to UPSIDE Foods and Good Meat in late June, I have been inundated with emails and texts from shoppers who are asking if this food is safe to eat. I am sure you have been as well. Both companies have achieved all three key regulatory milestones: A “No Questions” Letter from the FDA in November 2022, a USDA Label Approval in June 2023, and the USDA Grant of Inspection in June 2023.

Good Meat, the California-based company that I had been invited to tour back in 2017 was a true innovator that won multiple regulatory approvals to sell its cell-cultivated chicken in Singapore back in 2020. I was impressed with the technologies, the “clean room” laboratory and all the scientists and team that I met. While I did not have the opportunity to taste the chicken, as it was still in development, I did taste Just Egg, a plant-based ice cream (which to the best of my knowledge has not come to market) and some other products before they were to be released.  Good Meat’s announced strategy for their cell-cultivated chicken will launch with restaurateur and chef partner José Andrés. A very smart move, as Andres’ credibility and humanity is well regarded.

Not to be outdone, UPSIDE Foods, whose investors include Bill Gates, John Mackey (of Whole Foods fame) and Richard Branson, will launch its chicken at Bar Crenn, the infamous San Francisco restaurant led by Dominique Crenn, the only female chef in the U.S. awarded three Michelin Stars and James Beard Award-winning chef. Another smart move designed to breakdown the barrier to cell-cultivated meats through these culinary superstars that trend setter foodie influencers are sure to follow.

The reality is that we are years (and many dollars) away from offering cell-cultivated chicken in our supermarkets’ meat cases – but that will not stop the questions and the hype from confusing our shoppers.

Dan Glickman, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and member of the U.S. House of Representatives and a member of the Good Meat Advisory Board, is a true leader that I respect have interviewed and been privileged to have discussed the future of our food supply. I have little doubt that his involvement both stewarded the USDA approvals as well as insured strict safety protocols for the technology.

Both companies, and I am sure that others will follow, do however face major hurdles. While these companies tout the animal-friendly and environmental benefits to the cell-cultivated technologies the reality is that the costs of producing lab-grown meat at scale has yet to be realized. UPSIDE Foods has raised a total of $598M in funding over 8 rounds. Their latest funding was raised on Jun 21, 2023, from a Grant round. UPSIDE Foods is funded by 41 investors. GOOD Meat has raised $267M and closed its last funding round on Jun 21, 2023, from a Grant round. It is questionable if either company has raised enough money to subsidize its development and roll out – however, with the USDA approval it’s likely that both companies will be able to raise a lot more funding.  The cell-cultivated process is very expensive and uses bioreactors to produce the meat. Good Meat CEO Josh Tetrick was quoted as stating that a facility to produce 30 million pounds of cell-cultivated meats could cost as much as $650 million. To put it in perspective, Tyson, the nations largest poultry producer produced just over 200 million pounds in 2019, the last reported production, which equated to Approximately $18 billion in 2022.

There is much controversy over the processing (or over-processing) of plant-based meats – and a similar debate is taking place over cell-cultivated meats that depending on the type of energy used to feed the bioreactors, the environmental impact comes under question. If renewable energy is utilized there is a smaller impact as compared to traditional animal production. If traditional energy sources are used the impact could be worse than traditional animal production.

Another major hurdle is taste. Both the actual taste and the perceived taste. We have all witnessed products that claim to be better for our health and for the environment but did not resonate with consumers. As these cell-cultivated chicken products come to market, the true test will be how they taste – and not with gourmet preparations created by Chefs Andres and Crenn, but in-home preparations.

And then there is the label.

As we have witnessed, it’s all about the label; and how our shoppers react to the graphics and wording. The Radura symbol, when it appeared on ground beef, was the kiss of death for a technology that could have prevented an estimated 265,000 illnesses and about 100 deaths from E. coli infections.

It’s imperative that we take all these considerations into effect before we go to the mass market and be sure that we communicate the complete story.

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