Cultivated meat started as something out of a sci-fi blockbuster. Now, it’s a reality being served up in select restaurants, with the potential to hit grocery shelves one day.
The idea of producing meat in a lab was first discussed in the 1950s, when Dutch researcher Willem van Eelen, called one of the “godfathers of cultured meat,” came up with the idea. Even before then, however, Winston Churchill hinted at the idea in his 1931 essay, “Fifty Years Hence,” as he questioned the need for an entire chicken just to eat the breast or wing when these parts could be grown, “separately by a suitable medium,” he wrote.
Now, with the USDA having issued grants of inspection to Upside Foods and Eat Just, it’s clear that Churchill and van Eelen’s ideas are no longer pipedreams. With this final authorization, cultivated meat is now entering the US market.
Meanwhile, in late July, Aleph Farms — an Israeli cellular agriculture company — submitted the first ever application for cultivated meat in Europe as they look to enter the Swiss market.
"Italy, which is the world leader in food quality and safety, has the responsibility of leading the way in health and environmental protection policies" said Ettore Prandini, president of Coldiretti, regarding the bill.
Aleph Farms may see success in Switzerland since the Swiss generally have a a high affinity for innovation and progress and “74% of Swiss consumers are open to trying cultivated meat and are motivated to try it chiefly by curiosity and a desire to align with principles like sustainability and animal welfare,” the Aleph Farms release said.
In June 2023, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service issued new directives and a notice regarding the regulation of cell cultured food. With the publication of these new documents, there is a bit more clarity on how USDA-FSIS plans to execute regulatory obligations in this space.
Consumer sentiment evolves
Not only have there been major breakthroughs when it comes to the regulation of cultivated meat, but within the consumer mindset, as well.
Based on studies from 2017 to 2019 that asked (in nearly identical ways) about consumers’ “willingness to try” cultivated meat, just one in five respondents were not willing and more than 60 percent were, according to research from the Good Food Institute.
In 2021, the same question was asked and revealed similar results, with one in five again not being likely to try cultivated meat, but this time 80% being at least somewhat likely to try, the research said.
“Companies’ ability to sell products in Singapore and the U.S. is a big win both because it gives regular people a chance to try the products and start having their own conversations and developing their own visions of what the future of meat could look like as well,” said Claire Bomkamp lead scientist of cultivated meat & seafood at the Good Food Institute in an email.
So, how did the industry get from a sci-fi like prediction from Churchill in the 1930s, to a $330,000 burger in 2013, to the USDA giving the green light on inspection grants?
“I would say in general that cultivated meat is a field where progress is pretty incremental, with one thing building on another, rather than in discrete steps or breakthroughs,” said Bomkamp.
With more to come on the regulation front for the evolving space, Food Dive takes a look back at a comprehensive timeline of the cultivated meat and seafood industry:
March 2002: NASA scientists grow fish filets in a tank
As a means to find an alternative food source for astronauts, NASA scientists concluded that it would be possible to grow meat on demand, without slaughtering fish or animals.
August 2013: World’s first lab grown burger is cooked and eaten
Led by Mark Post of Maastricht University, a group of scientists in the Netherlands took cells from a cow, stripped them from muscle and then combined them into a patty-like formation. The burger was cooked and eaten at a food conference in London and cost around $330,000.
Critics at the conference had said it lacked juiciness and flavor, but Post described the burger as “a good start.”
The first burger was a key demonstration that it truly is possible to produce meat in meal-sized quantities, and that cells grown outside the animal can replicate what we expect from meat, according to the Good Food Institute.
Broadcast on a Youtube video, specialty chef Dave Anderson cooked the “meatball” in a frying pan and used a classic Italian recipe.
The two government entities issued a formal agreement to jointly oversee cell-cultured meat and poultry for human food.
Known as “The Alliance for Meat Poultry & Seafood Innovation”, the joint effort started as an effort to educate consumers about cell-based products and included Memphis Meats, Just, Fork & Goode, BlueNalu and Finless Foods.
December 2020: First sale of cell-based meat granted in Singapore
Eat Just landed the first ever regulatory approval for its cell-based chicken bites. The item was able to be sold at a restaurant in the island country of Singapore. With this approval, Singapore became the first country in the world to get the go-ahead on cell-based meat. After the regulatory approval was granted, Singapore became somewhat of a hotbed for the cultivated meat industry. Startups and alternative protein firms began to flock to the island to develop and launch animal-free alternatives.
The Spanish start up Novameat created what it claimed to be biggest cell-based meat prototype in the world.
February 2021: Alpha Farms produced the world’s first ribeye steak
The first of its kind product was made by Aleph Farms and biomedical researchers at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology through 3D bioprinting.
Michelin-star chef Dominique Crenn agreed to debut the company’s cell-based chicken in her San Francisco, barring the company’s approval.
As a result of several requests for more time to submit comments, the entity extended their comment period until December 2.
December 2021: Upside Foods developed animal free growth medium
The breakthrough cell feed was a major milestone, and allowed the company to develop cell-based meat without using any component of the animal.
The company was able to reduce its production cost 1,000-fold through a breakthrough that allows its cells to develop on their own in a bioreactor.
The FDA gave Upside Foods approval for its chicken grown from animal cells.
The Singaporean government had been meeting with companies like GOOD Meat and Eat Just since 2017, whereas U.S. regulatory entities have been slower to pick up on the idea. GOOD Meat said that this approval in Singapore would lead the way to greater production efficiencies.
Under a “no questions” letter, which accepts the company’s cultivated chicken product as safe to eat, the FDA granted approval of EatJust’s products.
Under full approval from the USDA, cultivated meat is officially able to enter the U.S. market. The entity granted Upside Foods and Eat Just grants of inspection.