Cell-cultured meat (often described as lab-grown or synthetic meat) is the next big thing in meat alternatives. In the last year, cell-cultured chicken was sold in Singapore and 3D printed steaks were eaten in Israel. In the United States, Upside Foods (formerly Memphis Meats) is one of the biggest names in an industry that is still waiting for federal approval to start selling its cell-cultured products. With backing from big-name investors like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Cargill and Tyson Foods, Upside Foods is poised to hit the ground running with cultured meats. Steve Myrick, vice president of operations for Upside Foods, discussed using cellular technology to create real meat that doesn’t come from the farm and the obstacles of bringing new food innovation to consumers.
MEAT+POULTRY: The USDA and FDA have agreed to jointly regulate and oversee the cultured meat industry. Is there any sense as to how and when that might happen?
Steve Myrick: The FDA is going to lead on pre-market safety evaluation, and then USDA on labeling and facility inspection. On the labeling side, both FDA and USDA have announced that they intend to have a consistent labeling approach, including what products are called and what the category is called. Upside Foods – along with our industry coalition – which is called AAMPS Innovation, wrote a letter to FDA, and is planning a similar stance with USDA, advocating for the use of cell-cultured to describe our industry. We chose that since, as you know, many terms have been used in the past – some of which can be seen as detracting from our industry or from conventional meat products – and we really wanted to use a neutral, factually descriptive term. Cell-cultured is one that we think is descriptive, is fair, and is unlikely to be confused with conventionally produced meat products or plant-based alternatives. Our industry is really aligned around that, which I think is really a meaningful step forward in the labeling conversation.
M+P: Recently we have seen cell-cultured products become available in Israel and Singapore. Is the regulatory body the only thing holding back cell-cultured products from being released? What products will be released first?
Myrick: We are definitely going to work with our food regulators to make sure that we have gone through the pre-market safety process and that we can tell consumers that we’ve gone through the rigorous regulatory pathway. We’ll be ready to sell on a small scale as soon as we have regulatory approval. And then we’ll very quickly try to build out production capacity which will take some time.
From the beginning of the company, we’ve worked to ensure that our production equipment, production process, and our inputs are all “animal-agnostic” and can allow us to make products from multiple species. We have some flexibility as to what comes first. We’ve done a lot of work on chicken and beef and those are obviously very popular proteins. Those are probably the front runners for us. Right now, we’re building a pilot-scale production facility, and it is not a chicken facility or a beef facility, it is something that could really make any type of protein that we want and can change over from one week to the next. Our current facility [in Berkeley, Calif.] is sort of a research and development facility. It allows us to make prototypes on a very small scale, but it is not an industrial-scale production process. The goal for the pilot plant is to create the model that we could hopefully copy-paste around the country and potentially around the world in the years to come. It will be operating in the fourth quarter of this year.
M+P: What will be the launch strategy?
Myrick: We see a few stages looking forward. In the early days when our products are new to consumers and we are still trying to scale up, we’ll likely try to sell into groups of consumers who care about the sustainability story, the climate impact, and, potentially, the animal welfare considerations of our products. We hope to appeal to more mainstream consumers very quickly. We also are working hard on nutrition profiles for our products; to improve nutrition in a number of ways that would be difficult to do in an animal. Of course, when you’re producing meat through an animal, you are somewhat limited in the nutrition profile of that product since you get what the animal gives you. Whereas, we have a lot of levers for adjusting things – like fatty acid ratios and other nutritional elements. We really do want to explore how can we make meat better for you. In the long term, we want to be a part of the food security solution for places that don’t have good access to protein or don’t have the income to eat a lot of meat. That will require that we produce in a really cost-competitive way, which will definitely take time and scale. But ultimately, our hope is to make meat products more affordable, more accessible everywhere.
M+P: How do you see Upside Foods getting to price parity with mid-range priced product, a grass-fed beef burger for example? Is that a reasonable goal considering where the technology is currently?
Myrick: It’s definitely more of a long-term goal. We certainly believe that it is achievable, but it will require advances on the R&D side. Improving the yields of our production process, finding less costly inputs that still give us good yields and it will require significant scale, which is many years off. It will take time, but it’s definitely one of our goals on a longer-term. We think that we are in range of premium meat products, the $10 to $25 per pound range depending on how we assume our current performance translates to commercial scale.
M+P: In the past couple of years, plant-based meat companies have done a good job of marketing products toward meat-eaters, or people who aren’t necessarily vegetarians or vegans. Will cell-cultured meat companies use the same strategy to reach consumers?
Myrick: We certainly want to make clear for consumers that our products are real meat. They are not made out of plant ingredients and looking to approximate that conventional product. This is the product they’re used to although made in a very different and extraordinary way – down to the level of the cell, to the DNA. Our chicken is chicken, our beef is beef. By the same token, for people who don’t eat meat or poultry or who might have an allergy to those products, they need to know that it is meat, it is beef, it is chicken. And some people may choose not to eat it as a result. We definitely intend to serve meat lovers and omnivores, as well as folks who may not be eating conventional meat for any number of reasons that are important to them.
M+P: People became familiar with mainstream plant-based meat alternatives, like Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat, through fast-food restaurants. Is that how Upside Foods would like to release products? Is that strategy smart when the product is slightly more nuanced in terms of what it is and how it’s made?
Myrick: We do like restaurants as an initial channel for our products. We do actively want to collect feedback from consumers from cooks and from chefs around the product and what they think and how it’s performing, and it’s easier to do that in a foodservice setting or retail setting. We also do want to make sure that consumers have a good experience the first time they try our products. We think by partnering with restaurants, we can help make sure that is true. And lastly, we’ll be supply constrained in the early days. It will take us time to build out the production capacity so that we could go into a major regional or national retailer. Restaurants are a good way to get product out and start to kind of demystify and tell its story while we still have relatively small production capacity.
M+P: People are very fond of steaks or pork chops – how is Upside Foods moving from a ground meat product into whole-muscle cuts? Are you developing your own scaffolding technology?
Myrick: We are already producing whole cuts, whole tissue products. Rather than producing cells in a suspension or in a slurry, we are producing whole tissues directly out of the cultivator. We have made chicken strips and chicken breasts that have texture well beyond ground meat. We think that’s an area where we’re really leading the industry so far since we are doing it through a proprietary cultivator that we built in-house. When we harvest meat out of our cultivator, you handle it with a fork and knife, not with a spoon, which we think is pretty unique in our industry. At this stage, some of the simpler textured products like chicken breast, we’re getting really good at. The complex ribeye steak is definitely going to take some time, we’re not there yet, but it’s something that we do hope to do eventually.
I’m an omnivore. I’ve eaten meat my whole life, I still eat it. I don’t intend to give it up. I think I’m one of our more calibrated taste testers and the chicken breast is pretty spot on.
What the large majority of US consumers would say is that “plant-based products are interesting, happy to give them a try, happy to make them part of my diet. But there’s something special about meat and I’m not trying to give that up.”
We really do want to embrace and help protect our meat-eating traditions as opposed to ask for behavioral change or make anybody feel guilty about what they’re doing. We want to make meat-eating a positive act that everybody can feel good about. It’s a different message from plant-based companies, which ultimately are asking for behavior change.
M+P: How do you envision cell-cultured companies coexisting with conventional meat companies long term?
Myrick: Most major CPG companies and meat processors have a product or are planning a product that will compete directly with some of the plant-based products. For the cell-cultured category, the technical barriers to entry are much higher. It will require expertise that at this stage isn’t core to a lot of the major food producers and meat processors. We’re much more likely to see partnerships as opposed to incumbent companies trying to create their own cell-cultured meat production systems. We’re seeing that just in some of the early investments into our space. Tyson Foods and Cargill are both investors in Upside Foods. Based on our conversations with those companies, we see a really compelling collaboration where we can be the technology development engine and they can help us with product development and distribution.
As a company, we don’t try to take a confrontational or disruptive type of stance. We really respect the fact that the meat and poultry industry feeds many billions of people today and we know that we are an important solution to helping continue to feed a growing planet, but not the only solution by any means. We see cell-cultured meat as a supplement – it’s kind of “and,” not “or.” We don’t think that this is something that replaces conventional production methods. It’s something that adds to humanity’s toolkit to continue growing our food system in a sustainable way. We want to augment and ultimately grow a more scalable, sustainable food system as opposed to disrupt it.