Imagine a way to produce meat without slaughtering animals. Instead of raising livestock on farms, Uma Valeti, a cardiologist, and co-founder of Upside Foods, dreamt of a way to "grow" meat in a production facility, by culturing animal cells.
The concept for what's now called "cultivated" meat came to Valeti when he was working with heart attack patients at the Mayo Clinic more than 15 years ago, growing human heart cells in a lab. It should be possible to grow meat with similar science, he realized.
Scientists could extract cells from an animal via a needle biopsy, place them in tanks, feed them the nutrients they need to proliferate, including fats, sugar, amino acids and vitamins, and end up with meat.
It has taken years of experimentation by a crew of biologists, biochemists and engineers to turn that concept into a product ready to eat. Now the company is awaiting a greenlight from the Food and Drug Administration to begin selling its first cultivated meat products, including a chicken fillet.
After four years of talks with regulators at the FDA, Valeti anticipates this could happen "in the very near future." When it does, Upside's production facility in Emeryville, Calif., will be able to produce over 50,000 pounds of cultivated meat products per year.
"People said it was science fiction," Valeti told me as we toured the 70,000-square-foot facility. "This is real."
We suited up for the tour in gowns, goggles and hair nets to maintain food safety protocols and walked past shiny, brewery-style, stainless steel tanks reaching from floor to ceiling.
But these tanks — called cultivators in this industry — "brew" meat, not beer. We saw the cell bank where the animal cell samples are stored, the pipes that pump nutrients into the tanks, and finally the raw meat as it emerged from the production facility.
The process had a futuristic vibe but by the end of the tour, it felt somehow ordinary to me — like a kind of hydroponic gardening.
The facility's glass walls look out into a busy upscale neighborhood, filled with restaurants, apartments and offices. Valeti says the glass walls are intentional — to signal transparency. "To create a paradigm change, people should be able to walk through and see and believe it," he says.
Upside Foods could have lots of competition once cultivated meats enter the market. More than 80 companies are staking a future in the space. For instance, Good Meat, part of Eat Just, Inc., will serve its cultivated chicken at the COP-27 climate conference this week, after debuting its product in Singapore. Also, Sci-Fi Foods, founded by self-proclaimed "burger-obsessed food lovers" aims to blend cultivated beef with a plant-based recipe to produce a hybrid burger that, they say, will be better for the planet.
The acceleration in investment comes as more consumers connect the dots between what they eat and the environment. An estimated one third of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions come from food production and scientists warn it's nearly impossible to meet climate goals without changing agriculture.
Scientists say beef has an especially large environmental impact because it requires a lot of land to graze animals and is a leading source of methane emissions. By comparison, it takes much less land and grain to raise chickens. However, concentrated poultry operations are linked to water pollution.
Furthermore, concentrated animal feeding operations are a risk factor for the emergence of diseases that spread between animals and people, as a U.N. report from 2020, Preventing the Next Pandemic, warned.
A move from medicine to meat
Valeti's leap from cardiology to food innovation was inspired by a belief that there was a better way to bring meat to the table.
He recalls working in a campus dining hall in medical school. He was sent to a slaughterhouse where he saw hundreds of chickens hanging on a production line. "They were literally moving past at blazing speed, they'd be upside down with blood everywhere," Valeti recalls. "That was an image that just stayed in my head."
He became a vegetarian, but he knew many people are resolute carnivores. Despite calls from climate change scientists to eat less meat, the globe is demanding more of it. Americans now eat more than 220 pounds of meat per person, per year, compared to 193 pounds a year in the early 1980s.
After his aha moment in the cardiology lab, Valeti became convinced he could develop a viable technique for cultivating meat from animal cells. "Once I got that idea into my head it was nearly impossible to get out," Valeti recalls.
He began raising money and started Upside (formerly called Memphis Meats) in 2015. At the time his two children were young, and his wife, also a doctor, was supportive of the decision despite the risks involved in a start-up.
He's won over plenty of investors along the way, including Bill Gates and venture capitalist John Doerr, and the company is now valued at more than a billion dollars. Some of the largest companies involved in traditional meat production, including Tyson and Cargill have also invested.
Though the idea of meat grown in tanks elicits an "ick" response from many people, the emerging industry sees market potential. According to consumer research, 88% of Gen Z consumers in the U.S. say they'd be somewhat open to trying cultivated meat, compared with about 72% of baby boomers.
"We feel super bullish on the prospects for plant-based meat as well as cultivated meat," says Bruce Friedrich of the Good Food Institute which tracks investment trends and lobbies for alternative proteins.
Climate-conscious consumers would be likely early adopters, Friedrich says, but for the market to really take off the products need to taste great and be cost-competitive, he says. "Until they get there, they're going to stay niche," Friedrich predicts. "Price and taste are why people make their food decisions."
When I asked Valeti about price parity with conventional meat he said the goal is to be price-competitive. "It will take time to build," Valeti acknowledged. As for taste, he says his team is ready to wow consumers.
A visit to the test kitchen
During our visit, we stopped in the company's state-of-the-art test kitchen for taste of Upside Foods' chicken. I was asked to sign a waiver before tasting it, because it's not yet legal to sell cell-cultured meat in the U.S.
I was served a piece of their chicken, pan-fried in a white-wine butter sauce. My first reaction: "It's delicious." (Isn't everything in wine-butter sauce?) And the texture was chewy, closely replicating the texture of chicken breast (minus bones, and tough bits or gristle.) "It tastes like chicken," I said, to which Valeti quickly replied, "It is chicken!"
It took Valeti and his team years to develop the technology behind these tasty bites. A key challenge was creating the feed for the cells. Cells need a mix of proteins, carbohydrates and fats (just as animals do) but, designing the exact formulation was part alchemy, and a lot of trial and error.
The feed needed to maximize growth, but also produce a good taste, texture and nutritional value. He quickly realized no single scientist had the skills to figure this out alone.
A muscle biologist can focus on growth, but he brought in nutritional biochemists and engineers to tackle the competing challenges linked to taste and growth. "We had to develop a multidisciplinary team of scientists," Valeti says.
Federal agencies are currently considering whether to allow cultivated meat producers to sell their meats.
The FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are working together on a regulatory framework "to help move these innovative products along into the U.S. market, as long as we're making sure that everything can be done safely and with appropriate labeling," Susan Mayne, Director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the FDA told NPR.
The FDA says it will review each company's submission separately and can't predict when or if any will be completed. "We encourage firms to have these conversations with us often and early in their product development phase," an FDA spokesperson wrote in an email.
A recent executive order from the Biden administration, which calls for advancing innovative solutions in climate change and food security, including "cultivating alternative food sources," was viewed by many in the nascent cultivated food industry as a sign of increased momentum toward approval. The USDA is currently developing labeling requirements.
Debates over health and environmental impact
There are debates about whether cultivated meat is healthy — or potentially healthier than conventional meat. "It's a very nuanced question without a very simple answer," explains Dana Hunnes, a registered dietitian at UCLA Medical Center. Opinions tend to reflect the range of views about meat in general.
Hunnes says cultivated meat may not appeal to vegans or vegetarians. She points to the healthfulness of plant-based diets, which is the diet she follows, and says some people don't want to eat meat, no matter how it's produced. Also, the cultivated meat industry has relied on fetal bovine serum from cows as a growth medium for the cells, though Upside Foods has developed an animal component-free alternative.
But most Americans are meat-eaters, and dieticians say meat is a good source of protein and important micronutrients including B vitamins. Part of the intrigue of cultivated meat is that it can be altered for improved nutrition. For instance, if cells were fed omega-3 fatty acids during the growing process, then, in theory, these heart-healthy fats could be absorbed into the meat.
"It is possible to create a so-called healthier version of the meat," Hunnes says, though much of this has not yet been explored since the industry is so new.
From a public health perspective, a potential advantage of cultivated meat is the fact that without live animals to catch and spread disease, no antibiotics are needed in production facilities and there's decreased likelihood of foodborne illness from intestinal pathogens.
For instance, salmonella, a bacteria that lives in animal intestines and is shed through their feces, would not be present in a cultivated meat production facility. "From a food safety standpoint, it probably has a one up," on the traditional meat industry, Hunnes says.
Because this is a new industry, there are potential unknowns. Some scientists say it's possible that unforeseen biological interactions could occur, such as cells multiplying in unpredictable ways. There's a continued need for research as the industry heads toward commercialization.
The first cultivated meat products were produced from cells biopsied directly from live animals. But this process isn't efficient. Over the last few years, start-ups have worked to identify "immortalized" cell lines, that "can be grown almost indefinitely without having to go back to the animal," explains David Kaplan, professor of biomedical engineering of Tufts University.
His lab received a $10 million grant from USDA to help develop the cultured meat industry. "We need more and more," immortalized cell lines, Kaplan says, as the industry looks to expand to different types of meat, poultry and fish.
Another unknown is the exact climate impact of cultivated meat. Researchers at the University of Oxford modeled the potential climate change impact of cattle compared to cultivated meat. One advantage of cultivated meat is that it will not produce methane emissions, which is a potent greenhouse gas produced by cattle.
But the cultivated meat industry will contribute to CO2 emissions, given that its production facilities will use electricity. The researchers conclude that the relative impact will be determined by whether — or how quickly — the energy used to power the cultivated meat production facilities comes from clean-energy, or decarbonized energy.
For Valeti, the potential benefits of cultivated meat are too important not to try to overcome the obstacles. He sees a future with a better alternative to the current system of producing meat, and he's determined to create it.
Valeti says, ultimately, as a doctor he might have been able to help a few thousand patients during his career. But, by taking the leap to cultivated meat, with its potential promise to overhaul meat production, he believes he can have a larger impact. "This could literally affect billions of human lives and save potentially trillions of animal lives," Valeti says.
While awaiting regulatory approval, he's moving forward to bring the product to people's plates. He has signed a partnership with Dominique Crenn, the co-owner and chef of the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, who has agreed to provide culinary consulting and recipe development and — once the new product is approved for market — to serve Upside's cultivated chicken at her restaurant.
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Americans eat a lot of meat, more than 220 pounds of it per year per person. And meat production is responsible for a lot of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. As the world focuses this week on climate change, there's growing interest in a very new way to produce meat. NPR's Allison Aubrey visited a company founded by a heart doctor who is now growing meat without the animals and spoke with our co-host Rachel Martin about it. And a warning - this segment contains a graphic description of a chicken-processing plant.
RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: I'm so glad you're here. I have so many questions. I guess the big one is, how do you make meat without involving animals?
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Yes, I get it. It's sort of mind-bending. So let me just say from the start, what this is, is the idea that you don't have to grow meat inside an animal's body. You can actually take cells from an animal and grow their tissue outside their body. Now, let's just be clear. This is not the veggie burger. It's not the Impossible burger.
AUBREY: This is completely different, OK? So this company was founded by Dr. Uma Valeti. He's a cardiologist. And about a decade ago, he told me that he had kind of a eureka moment. He realized that it might be possible to extract cells from an animal and grow meat directly from these cells. Now, he got this idea while he was working with heart attack patients at the Mayo Clinic.
UMA VALETI: We were working on stem cells. We were taking stem cells from patients who had a very large heart attack. We would isolate the types of cells that'll grow into heart muscle, and I would re-inject them into the patient's heart again.
AUBREY: You know, he figured if it was possible to use cells to help grow muscle in the human heart, it would also be possible to use animal cells to grow meat.
VALETI: Once it got into my head, it was nearly impossible to get it out.
AUBREY: Now, there were two big motivations for him. He grew up eating meat. But during medical school, he worked at a campus dining hall, and he was sent to a slaughterhouse. And he recalls the smell and the scene of the production line.
VALETI: These were hundreds of chickens in minutes. They were literally moving past, like, at blazing speed. And they would be hanging upside down with blood dripping everywhere. That was an image that was - like, it just stayed in my head.
AUBREY: So this really kind of bothered him. And the other big motivating factor for him was learning more about the environmental footprint of meat. It turns out that food production is responsible for one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions. And much of this is linked to animals. For instance, cattle create a lot of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. There's also land use. There's water use. There's energy use. And a global panel of scientists has also concluded that it's going to be nearly impossible to meet climate goals if agriculture doesn't change.
MARTIN: So did he end up leaving his career in medicine?
AUBREY: That's exactly what he did. He started fundraising. He hired a bunch of scientists to really dig in and help him figure out how to do this. And there were lots of skeptics.
VALETI: Everybody thought this was just science fiction.
AUBREY: But a decade later, he's actually producing the meat. The company is worth a billion dollars. Investors now include big meat companies including Tyson and Cargill. And Uma Valeti took me on a tour of Upside's new 70,000-square-foot space in Emeryville, Calif., in the East Bay.
VALETI: We're now walking through the FDA-regulated side of the production facility.
AUBREY: It is open and cavernous with big glass walls. And we enter this room that's filled with these huge, shiny stainless steel tanks.
Looks a little bit like a brewery.
VALETI: Yeah. But I think the big changes - it's all glass walls.
AUBREY: Nothing to hide here.
AUBREY: It's in here where all the cells are growing into meat. Now, Valeti and his team have spent a long time figuring out which mix of cells, which have been extracted or biopsied from animals, are best for growing the meat. They've also had to figure out how much to feed them. Now, all cells, whether they're in an animal or growing out in a tank, need to be fed a few basic things to grow. So you can kind of think of this room as the mess hall for the cells.
VALETI: What we're looking at on the left-hand side is where we make the feed.
AUBREY: So this is where you're putting your amino acids, your fats...
VALETI: Yes. Yeah.
AUBREY: ...Your sugars, right into these tanks.
AUBREY: And on this steady diet, the cells multiply, proliferate. In these tanks, they're growing into chicken.
VALETI: Can you see those four yellow pumps?
AUBREY: He can add some more vitamins or nutrients.
VALETI: So we only give the cells what they need, so there is no excess nutrients that are given and wasted.
AUBREY: And his team continues to tinker with the alchemy to get it just right. They add oxygen to circulate the nutrients around the cells.
VALETI: It's kind of substituting the performance of what blood would do in an animal.
AUBREY: And it takes just two to four weeks to go from cells to meat that's ready to be harvested.
MARTIN: I mean, that is just unbelievable. Did you try it?
AUBREY: Yep. I tasted it. Actually, Upside senior food scientist - his name is Daniel Davila. He prepared me a dish.
DANIEL DAVILA: It's our chicken fillet, which is going to be served with a white wine butter sauce.
AUBREY: He pan-seared the chicken fillet.
DAVILA: You get this kind of really nice Maillard browning that you see there.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So, yeah.
AUBREY: I'm really starting to get that sense of meat is being cooked.
DAVILA: Yeah (laughter). Yeah.
AUBREY: Then, he plates the dish.
DAVILA: All right. Please enjoy.
AUBREY: It really is delicious. I'm not sure if I'm tasting the butter wine sauce or if I'm tasting the Upside chicken.
And when I tell Uma Valeti that the texture is just like chicken, his response?
VALETI: It is chicken. It is just chicken grown directly from animal cells in a different way, in a very clean, controlled environment.
MARTIN: OK. But clearly, Allison, you were with the chef. So tell me, really. How does it taste?
AUBREY: You know, chicken is a bit of a blank slate. So I kind of think it does depend on how it's prepared, how it's served. But really, what I think they've nailed here, Rachel, is that when we eat meat, it's that texture that we really notice. It's like, do the little bits get stuck in your teeth? You know, is it that chewy texture we're used to?
AUBREY: And that's where I think they've gotten really close.
MARTIN: We've acknowledged chicken is chicken. But when people buy red meat, when they buy beef, they don't use a lot of sauce, right? Like, they want it to taste like beef. Do they make beef?
AUBREY: The goal is to make beef. The environmental footprint of beef is something that's motivating these companies to get there. But I think it's going to be harder to reproduce a filet mignon.
MARTIN: Right. All right. Last question, Allison - are these companies likely to win approval here in the U.S.?
AUBREY: You know, I have been talking to the Food and Drug Administration. They would need to authorize these products for any of the cultivated meat to start to be sold. Now, I should point out - I had to sign a waiver before tasting this meat because it's not yet approved. These companies are going through the process now, working with both the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, working on a joint regulatory framework. And their hope is that they get a green light soon.
MARTIN: NPR's Allison Aubrey. So interesting. Thank you so much, Allison.
AUBREY: Thank you, Rachel.
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