When Paul McCartney said, "If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian," he was referring to how repellent meat production is. At Upside Foods, meat production will take place behind glass walls for the opposite reason, with tours and tastings to prove it.
The company grows meat from cells at an unusual new facility that it calls EPIC: Engineering, Production and Innovation Center. Rather than in an industrial park, it's located just a bridge away from downtown San Francisco alongside a popular shopping and restaurant center in Emeryville, California. "The idea is putting a meat facility right in the middle of an urban setting, for people who want to see how meat's made," says Upside Foods CEO Uma Valeti.
One of Upside's most recent breakthroughs is the development of a completely animal-free medium, the mixture of nutrients, vitamins and amino acids that support cells as they grow into a recognizable chunk of meat. Cultured meats have typically been grown in a medium containing some animal matter like fetal bovine serum, presenting an ethical conundrum as well as an affordability and scale barrier.
"We knew that developing animal component-free cell feed would be crucial to fully realizing our vision," said Valeti announcing the news and not using the word vegan, a label, though not an ethic, that is out of favor with many alt protein brands.
Visitors expecting merely a promotional retail experience may be surprised that the entire production of meat happens on site.
EPIC takes a page from the famous California wineries just up the highway: Public tours of the gleaming 53,000-square-foot facility explain the process prior to tasting what's produced in it. It's a technique that wineries have long used to create both affinity for the category as well as preference for a brand.
Valeti seems more focused on the category at this early stage. "Unless we show how it's made, this is not going to be easy to explain," he says of cultivated meat, a term that is starting to take over from the "lab meat" label that hardly sounds appetizing and doesn't reflect the scale the industry is starting to achieve. "Agriculture is all about cultivation and this is a new type of agriculture," he says.
Adding tailwind to the sector is the USDA's first investment in the new National Institute for Cellular Agriculture at Tufts University, which was preceded by the first ever government grant for cultivated meat research, at UC Davis, a year prior.
As Valeti showed me around the EPIC production floor, he said Upside didn't have to invent all of its machinery from scratch. Much of it was adapted from the beer, yogurt and food enzyme industries that have a similar need to precisely control temperature, oxygen and nutrients in their production. That link to existing food production may aid consumer acceptance. In a recently brokered arrangement, the Food and Drug Administration regulates the part of the process that grows active cells while the US Department of Agriculture takes over when they are no longer fed nutrients and are packaged as food. Both agencies are in the process of verifying the safety and nomenclature of cultivated meat before it is authorized for public sale.
Upside begins tours of the EPIC facility in January, with larger facilities envisioned that could one day produce all the meat consumed in a metro area. Economist reporter Jon Fasman recently estimated that cultivated meat is two to three years away from market and two to three decades away from price parity with conventional meat. Upside's Valeti is predictably more optimistic on both counts, saying his company is ready to put its product into select restaurants days after regulatory approval, with price parity with premium organic meat perhaps 10 years after that.
Upside's EPIC isn't the first place consumers can try cultivated meat, with prior small launches by SuperMeat in Tel Aviv. And while , cultivated meats may be the big game, able to make a run at the majority of consumers who have no interest in giving up animal meat. Their acceptance of cultivated meat as the real thing may be hastened by education like Upside is doing around the definition of meat and assumptions about where it comes from.and
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