FDA ruling on cultured meat "exciting" but "scientific unknowns" persist , says public face of the industry

By John Reynolds on Monday 16 January 2023

FDA ruling on cultured meat
Image source: FDA ruling on cultured meat "exciting" but "scientific unknowns" persist , says public face of the industry
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Mark Post, who in 2013 became the first person to present a proof of concept of cultivated meat, reflects on the recent decision by the FDA, ruling that Upside Foods' cultured chicken was safe to eat, as industry hopes it will lead to regulatory doors being opened across the world.

The US food regulator deeming cultivated meat safe for human consumption for the first time is an “exciting development” but there are still “scientific unknowns” and “factors outside our control”, says one of the public faces of the nascent cultivated meat industry.

Mark Post, who in 2013 became the first person to present a proof of concept of cultivated meat, is reflecting on the FDA’s decision last year ruling that Upside Foods’ cultivated chicken is safe to eat in the US.

While the product still needs the blessing of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) before it can reach consumers' mouths, the FDA’s rubber-stamp is a key step towards the commercialisation of an industry, which has attracted as many detractors as it has supporters.

The approval by the FDA also comes at a time when cultivated startups across the world, backed by billions of pounds of investment, up the ante as they look to make their dreams a reality and open the floodgates on a new food industry, which they argue is more environmentally friendly and efficient than traditional farming.

FDA approval “exciting” for investors

Post, the co-founder and chief science officer of Dutch cultured meat firm Mosa Meat, says: “The decision by the FDA is an exciting development for the entire cellular agriculture ecosystem including investors, companies and food system reformers.”

Currently Singapore is  the only market to approve cultured meat to market (where US firm Eat Just sells its chicken at local restaurants, street stalls and through grocery delivery platform foodpanda).

But the mood music emanating from other countries, like Dubai and Israel for example, is giving cultivated meat companies plenty of encouragement.

Post says he’s unsure whether the US is keener on cultivated meat than other global markets, but thinks other regulators can learn lessons from the US regulator.

“It’s hard to say,” he says, adding that “regulators around the world will be paying close attention” to the FDA’s decision.

He adds: “A sense of global competition is usually helpful in compelling governments to help their domestic industries scale up and thrive. 

“Lessons to be learned” from FDA

“There are lessons to be learned from how open the FDA is to robust dialogue with companies before and during the application process.

“This approach, which is an administrative-level decision, can be very helpful in making the safety review as fast and efficient as possible.

“We'll have to see how the USDA's process will develop in order to assess how the US framework compares to the existing regulatory pathways in Europe and Singapore.”

For Upside Foods to get full approval to market, it will now have to get the nod from the USDA, which oversees areas like facility inspections, registration and product labelling.

California-based Upside Foods is cock-a-hoop with the FDA’s blessing, with its chief operating officer Amy Chen saying cultivated meat is now “tangible” and is “coming maybe much sooner than [people think]”.

US firms scaling up

Upside Foods, which in 2021 opened its EPIC factory in California, which it says is capable of producing 400,000 pounds of cultured meat a year, is one of a number of US firms leading the cultivated charge. 

California-based rival Eat Just says its cultivated production facility in Singapore, set to open this year, can produce “tens of thousands” of cultured meat every year.

Cultivated salmon startup Wildtype, backed by Leonardo DiCaprio, BlueNalu, and Finless Foods are other US leading startups while the USDA has allocated $10m for the creation of a centre of excellence in cellular agriculture at Tufts University.

Qatar and Israel cultured meat hotbeds

Qatar, a country that is concerned about food security, could be the next market to approve cultured meat; Qatar’s ministry of health has indicated its likely intention to approve Good Meat, Eat Just's cultured meat brand, to market.

Another cultured meat hotbed is Israel, whose government has ploughed millions into the industry and is home to leading cultivated companies like Aleph Farms and Believer Meats.

And the rest of the world

In other parts of the world, Australian cultivated firm Vow has unveiled a cultivated factory, the largest of its kind in the southern hemisphere, and has submitted its first product for regulatory approval as it initially targets the Singapore market.

China has indicated cultivated meat will be a key area for investment under its five-year plan while cultured meat companies have also launched in Mexico, Brazil while Africa is home to a cultivated seafood firm.

Meanwhile, in the EU, where the EU government funding program REACT-EU has awarded millions into research into lowering the cost of cell culture media, Parisian startup Gourmey has recently raised $48m in new funding, the world’s largest in a Series A round for a firm in the sector, according to Dealroom.

Gourmey is using the funding to build a cultivated production facility in Paris, set to be Europe’s biggest cultivated meat production site.

Mosa Meat, which is targeting Singapore and Europe, is aiming for a “first market introduction in the next couple of years", says Post.

Post adds: “It is very difficult to commit to a particular timeframe because there are still some scientific unknowns and factors outside our control (such as the regulatory process). 

“The first introduction will likely be small-scale. Several years beyond that, we aim to be widely available in restaurants and supermarkets.”

In the UK, UK startup Ivy Farm Technologies has opened its UK pilot plant which can produce more than 6000lbs of cultivated meat per year, as it looks to bring its cultivated pork to market.

Floodgates to open?

The cultivated industry will be hoping that a US approval will be a harbinger, with other markets following suit.

The FDA hasn't commented on whether other cultivated meat firms are getting close to approval, but it seems likely the green lighting of Upside Foods will kickstart others to piggyback on this.

In Europe, meanwhile, as of September last year, no firm has submitted a novel food dossier on cultivated meat to either the European Foods Safety Authority (EFSA) or the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA), according to Food Navigator.

In the UK, Ivy Farm has called for the speeding up of the regulatory process and more open dialogue with the regulator over the approval process, saying its tardiness could jeopardise investment.

It now remains to be seen, in light of the FDA approval, whether firms previously eyeing up European and UK approval will switch their focus to the US.

Investment continues to pour in

Despite the forward momentum, the industry has been besieged by criticism, with critics saying that cultivated meat is nothing more than a pipe dream, which due to manufacturing challenges will never be realised at scale.

Others, who are less damning, argue that the industry is not currently commercially viable and will take years for it to be so, as production methods are refined.

That said, despite the negative headlines, investment in the industry has continued to pour in.

According to the Good Food Institute, investment into cultivated food firms topped $1.36bn in 2021, more than triple the 2020 investment, while the number of unique investors jumped by 62 per cent on the year.

What investors are saying

On Upside Foods' FDA approval, Costa Yiannoulis, managing partner at Synthesis Capital, a food technology venture capital fund, which backs Upside Foods, told the Washington Post: ““We will see this as the day the food system really started changing.”

Likewise, Post thinks it is full steam ahead in terms of funds from investors.

He said: "We have raised just over €100m  from a variety of investors, including individuals, venture capitalists, and companies like the animal feed supplier Nutreco."

But other investors are more circumspect.

Sarai Kemp, VP deal flow, Trendlines AgriFood Fund and Nitza Kardish, CEO, Trendlines Agrifood Fund, said: “I think it's true to say we were never bullish on cultured meat; alternative protein, in general, yes." 

“The cultured meat companies raised a lot of money at very high valuations, with years to commercialisation."

“These are tough conditions for a VC to justify. With the general decline in appetite for higher-valued startups, this will also affect, at least in the short term, money going into this segment." 

“The real test for the cultured meat market will be in a few years. If they don't succeed in bringing tasty, regulation-approved products at reasonable prices, we will see a fall in this market.”