Immortalized chicken — can beef be far behind? By Mack Graves



When is a chicken not a chicken? When it’s immortalized, or so says Upside Foods, formerly known as Memphis Meats. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has cleared Upside Foods’ “slaughter-free” ‘chicken’ putting lab-grown meat one step closer to US restaurant menus and grocery store shelves. How can that be? A chicken that’s not a chicken? Pandora’s box is opening wide, as there will soon be other companies bringing cell-cultivated proteins to a restaurant or grocery store near you. Beef that’s not beef may be next.

What about the USDA developing an inspection process for production plants and label approval for the finished cell-cultivated chicken or beef that’s soon to follow? The New York Times reported that industry experts, whoever they are, said that clearance from the FDA was the biggest hurdle for products seeking to go to market, and that they expected the cell-cultivated chicken to receive confirmation from USDA in the coming months.

Just how do you produce immortalized chicken? From their website, Upside Foods says, “In a nutshell, our production process starts by taking a sample of primary cells from a chicken or fertilized egg. From this sample, our team selects ideal cells for developing a commercial cell line. The winning cells are chosen based on their ability to produce high-quality meat and grow predictably and consistently. This process is called immortalization. Once a cell line is established, we’re able to draw from it for years — if not decades — to come, reducing the need to take additional cell samples from animals.” And there you have it—immortalized, a description I never thought I would hear about a chicken. It kind of sounds like those San Francisco sour dough bread makers jealously protecting their sour dough cultures so they can be used over and over for years and years.

Well, we knew it was happening. Cell-cultivated protein, that is. It’s been researched for many years and now it’s coming to fruition slowly, but the door is open. Katy, bar the door! 

And, if chicken can be “immortalized,” can beef, pork or turkeys be far behind? Soon there may be a plethora of “meat” company cell-cultivated offerings if the money can be found to finance them. Speaking of financing, Future Foods, a company founded in Israel, a year ago raised $347 million to support their company’s cell-cultured meat and poultry products made from animal cells. And guess who some of the major investors were — Archer Daniels Midland and Tyson Foods, two pretty big US food companies.

As announced over a year ago, Memphis Meats nee Future Foods’ investor money was used in part to open a US based processing facility with the goal of bringing the cell-cultivated meat products to the US market later in 2022. Well, good luck with that, but grocery store meat section shelves may not be overflowing with the new cell-cultivated proteins that quickly, in my opinion.

The screeching sound you hear is from meat and poultry industry veterans’ fingernails being dragged across the chalk board demonstrating their frustration with anything that describes a protein that is not from a live animal being FDA-approved and thus to be labeled meat or poultry.

Will these cell-cultivated proteins that are soon to be in restaurants and grocery stores replicate the path of the plant-based faux meat proteins? Millions of dollars chased the companies making these plant-based meat analogs, only to see the companies they financed grind to a halt or at least dramatically slow their growth as consumers did not fully accept the products. But remember the first mover in a market usually reaps the most rewards if they are well-financed and can withstand the inevitable downturns of any new product venture.

At the risk of saying the obvious, there will be a brouhaha from the traditional meat and poultry industry scions about any cell-cultivated company receiving FDA-approval and subsequently similar approval from the USDA. Do such approvals portend the future for the entire conception-to-consumption of live-animal-to-meat product continuum, or will cell-cultivated chicken, followed by beef, be a flash in the pan, so to speak?