IIn a food industry first, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has declared a lab-grown chicken product developed by California food tech startup Upside Foods to be safe for human consumption, ushering in a new food revolution in which meat in the world is grown in bioreactors instead of factory farms.
The Nov. 16 decision, which comes after a rigorous evaluation period, is the first and largest of three hurdles that must be cleared before the Berkeley-based company can sell its “cultured” — the industry’s preferred term — chicken in grocery stores and restaurants, but likely paves the way for dozens of similar products ranging from lab-grown beef to steaks, fois grasand even treats for cultured mice for cats.
“This is a watershed moment in food history,” said Dr. Uma Valletti, CEO and founder of UPSIDE Foods, in a statement, “We started UPSIDE in a world full of skeptics, and today we make history again as the first company to receive a ‘No Questions Asked’ letter from the FDA for cultured meat. This milestone marks an important step towards a new era in meat production.”
More than 100 companies are working on different iterations of cultured meat, but they all start from the same basic principle: stem cells are taken from the source animal (either by biopsy from an adult animal or from an in vitro embryo) and encouraged to multiply in a bioreactor full of with nutrient-rich broth. After differentiating into fat, muscle or structural cells, they are moved to a larger bioreactor where they continue to grow until they can be harvested. The process can take two to four weeks, depending on the final product. Ground chicken, for example, takes less time than a complex steak created using a 3-D bioprinter. Upside’s chicken tenders fall somewhere in the middle. The industry is still relatively young – the world’s first cultured meat product was launched in 2013 when Dutch startup Mosa meat introduced its lab-grown beef burger to the world at a price tag of $330,000, but companies are already eyeing supermarket shelves in hopes of being first to market. Singapore is the only country that allows the sale of cultured meat, specifically chicken produced from GOOD Meata division of the American food technology company Eat Just, Inc. But the American market, with the highest per capita meat consumption in the world, is the ultimate goal for most companies.
Read more: The cow that can feed the planet
According to the FDA, Upside’s chicken will likely have company very soon. “We are already engaged in discussions with numerous companies about different types of food produced from cultured animal cells, including food produced from seafood cells,” the agency said in a written statement. “Our goal is to support innovation in food technology, always keeping the production of safe food as our priority. Human food made with cultured animal cells must meet the same strict requirements, including safety requirements, as all other foods.
The next step for Upside and all other companies following it is approval from the United States Department of Agriculture, which will inspect the safety of the production facilities as well as the cleanliness of the meat production process, similar to conventional raised chicken. Finally, the meat itself will have to be inspected before it is put on the market. Farmed seafood companies that are regulated only by the FDA and do not fall under the jurisdiction of the USDA could move through the system even more quickly. “This is an important milestone toward the future of food,” said Bruce Friedrich, president of the Good Food Institute, an advocacy organization promoting plant-based and cellular alternatives to animal products. “Culturized meat, poultry and seafood will soon be available to consumers who want their favorite foods to be produced more sustainably.”
TIME toured Upside’s brand new Berkeley facility in March to get a taste of what’s to come. The lab and test kitchen are housed in a mixed-use residential neighborhood. The building is most notable for its huge windows that allow passers-by to peer into the production floor, where massive fermentation tanks are connected by a gleaming network of steel tubes and pipes designed to support nascent chicken fillets fed a steady stream of nutrients. substances. “The windows are there to show that we have nothing to hide,” Valletti said as he led a tour through the manufacturing process. “Our process is clean, safe and ethical – can you imagine a slaughterhouse allowing a tour like this? Would you even want to see this?”
Upside Foods founder Uma Valletti cuts into the freshly prepared lab-grown chicken product
Rosette Rago for TIME
The tour concluded with a sample of Upside’s chicken tenderloin, grilled and served with a simple white wine and caper sauce. The most surprising aspect was that there was no surprise – the chicken tasted exactly like chicken should, only more so. Most supermarket chickens bred for rapid growth are bland, more texture than flavor. Upside’s chicken stem cells were selected for taste; their nutrient medium is designed to enhance both flavor and texture. The results are a firm, soft bite reminiscent of old-fashioned farm breeds—future food rooted firmly in the past. Now that Upside has the green light from the FDA, with USDA approval coming soon, that will also be a present reality.
More must-reads from TIME