Inside a gleaming new 53,000-square-foot food production facility in Emeryville, California that makes cultivated meat—real meat grown from animal cells, without the animal—large glass windows offer a view into a warehouse filled with rows of metal tanks and tubes. Welcome to the anti-slaughterhouse: Upside Foods, the company that designed the center as it first commercial facility, will produce chicken, beef, duck, and other meat from cells grown inside bioreactors.
“The focus in the last five years for the industry has been really to show that the science works,” says Uma Valeti, CEO and founder of Upside Foods, formerly known as Memphis Meats. “The next phase is all about how do you bring products out of the lab into industrial scale.” The promise is big; the flavor of the food is exactly like traditionally produced meat, but without the same environmental impacts, animal cruelty, or the risk of pandemics born in factory farms (or bacteria that can no longer be treated with antibiotics because those antibiotics have been overused on farms).
Unlike a slaughterhouse, the facility, called EPIC (Engineering, Production, and Innovation Center) is designed to welcome visitors. Tours will begin in January, likely long before U.S. regulatory agencies give approval for the new meat to be sold on the market. “When we bring products like this to the world, we expect people to ask a lot of questions,” Valeti says. “And the best way to answer them is to start talking about it well before a product gets on the market, demystifying it.”
The production facility sits in the middle of a neighborhood, near restaurants and residential buildings. If the industry takes off, in the future, production facilities are likely to be much larger, making tens or hundreds of millions of tons of cultivated meat at strategic locations for distribution. But in other cases, the plants will be in the middle of cities. “I also see facilities maybe not much bigger than this, maybe two times or three times larger than this, being actually in cities next to like, a Whole Foods or a supermarket, so that meat for that supermarket can be produced right next to it,” he says.
The machines inside the building will be able to produce multiple types of meat, cultivating muscle tissue, for example, by feeding muscle cells so that they grow and multiply. “The whole point of this is to start building production modalities that can adapt to multiple species so that you don’t have to build a production facility that looks very different for chicken versus beef versus seafood,” Valeti says. Some of the equipment can produce whole cuts of meat, something that is more complex to replicate and will come to market after ground meat products. The equipment installed so far is large enough to produce 50,000 pounds of finished products annually, with room to eventually produce 400,000 pounds of products per year. In Israel, a similar industrial-scale facility for cultivated meat opened earlier this year.
While some critics have questioned the economics of producing meat this way, Valeti says that there’s a path to cost-competitiveness with traditional meat. In the past, cells were grown this way for the pharmaceutical industry, but only at a very small scale. Valeti, a cardiologist by training who started thinking about making healthier food after seeing patients with heart disease, says that when he started the company in 2015, it was a leap of faith—he had a basic proof of concept, but “nearly everyone I spoke to said, ‘don’t do this,'” he says.
But the company has worked to drastically lower the cost of the “feed” that the cells eat and design cultivation systems to produce cells on a much larger scale than the pharmaceutical industry. There are still challenges to solve, but when the food gets regulatory approval and production can grow faster, Valeti believes that there could be a point in the next five to ten years at which the cost of cultivated meat intersects with traditionally produced meat. As cultivated meat becomes cheaper to produce, traditional meat may also face more costs from a carbon tax or other policy aimed at curbing climate change.
The industry is quickly growing. “What’s happened in the last five years, is unlike anything that’s ever happened in the food industry,” Valeti says. Upside Foods was one of the first in the space, but “now we know there’s nearly 100 companies across the world, in nearly every meat-producing and meat-consuming country, trying to do cultivated meat,” he says. “And that type of acceleration has never happened in food, especially for a completely new space. We also know that nearly every major food and ag university program is starting undergrad and postgraduate courses in this because there’s such an interest in this area from students who want to be a part of this type of food system. . . . Every major meat producer has invested in a company like ours. Cargill is invested in us. Tyson is invested in us.”
A little less than a year ago, Singapore gave the world’s first regulatory approval to cultivated meat, approving a type of lab-grown chicken. It’s not clear when regulators at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will follow, but when that happens, the field will grow even faster.