In November, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the first time raised no objections to a cultivated-meat meat product being made available for human consumption. It was a move that provided a boost to the cultivated or cell-based meat industry, which has so far only seen approval for the commercial sale of meat grown in a lab from Singapore. The FDA told California-based food-tech business Upside Foods – formerly known as Memphis Meats – it would be able to launch its products once it has been inspected by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Just Food caught up with Upside Foods’ chief operating officer, Amy Chen, a former PepsiCo senior executive, to find out how the talks with USDA are going and to hear about its roadmap for the future.
Just Food: Four months on, how do you reflect now on receiving the FDA’s backing?
Upside Foods chief operating officer Amy Chen: There’s a feeling that getting the green light from the FDA in November represented a real milestone for the industry.
JF: Were you surprised to get the FDA’s approval?
AC: The FDA’s timing was a bit of a surprise but the US is always seen as a leader in terms of regulations and food safety so it was important it put its stake in the ground and to set a high-water mark globally. Singapore is the only other country to give this the green light. Cultivated meat can play an important part in the US from a food security perspective.
JF: You also need USDA’s approval. How is that process going?
AC: We are now deep into the process with the US Department of Agriculture. It has been very thoughtful, taking time to understand what we do. It has been a normal process and we are not anticipating any big road bumps. We are just waiting for that to complete so we can launch our initial product with [French] three Michelin star chef Dominique Crenn [from San Francisco restaurant Atelier Crenn].
JF: How long then until you can launch a product into the market?
AC: Once USDA has signed off, it will be a matter of weeks or months after that.
JF: What will the launch product be?
AC: It will be a cultivated chicken product, a full-textured piece of meat. Other companies are working on blended products but this is as close to 100% [meat] as you can get. And we’re happy about chef Crenn’s involvement. She has taken meat off the menu at her restaurant because she wasn’t happy about [the quality of] it.
JF: How important is it to the company that you’ve gained first-mover advantage through the FDA approval?
AC: Our goal is first to market and best to market. When someone approaches a new industry like cultivated meat, the first impact with the category is so important. If that first bite is amazing, that will go a very long way towards scalability. We believe consumers will love that first bite.
JF: Will Upside Foods mainly be targeting the foodservice channel?
AC: Yes, we will focus on foodservice. In terms of consumer psychology, you go into a restaurant in a frame of mind to try new things and also, in our case, with confidence that you are in the hands of a three-star chef.
JF: One of the biggest hurdles cultivated-meat firms have faced is the eye-wateringly high cost of the growth media necessary for the meat’s development process and what that means for the end product price. Where are you at with this?
AC: This is something we are focusing on. The media has 50-70 components including 20 amino acids. The ingredients don’t currently exist [in the market] on the scale you would need. The key to success is to demonstrate a market for these ingredients and then there would be a need for them [the providers] to scale up. We need a robust, high-quality supply chain. From a biological perspective, we are also looking at the cell lines. How do you feed the cells to make them more efficient?
JF: Are there no businesses in the supply chain putting these ingredients together in a more financially-viable way?
AC: There are some consolidators. The likes of Merck [&Co] and GE [HealthCare] sell to pharmaceutical firms. They are interested in getting into this area.
JF: Is your strategy after final approval to concentrate on the domestic market or has your experience at PepsiCo [Chen was chief marketing officer of the snacks business in Greater China] led you to think of the product as having international appeal?
AC: Ultimately, I think cultivated meat will play a big role globally. It will create solutions for countries that don’t have food security. There is tremendous interest from all around the world. But, in the short term, we will concentrate on the domestic market.
JF: You mentioned blended products earlier and that may be an easier and faster route to market. Would you consider this option?
AC: Consumers ultimately don’t care. We want to provide what consumers want and so we are agnostic to this [hybrid] approach. We will work out the best way to do this.
JF: Are you concerned sections of the media may label meat grown in a lab as ‘Frankenstein food’?
AC: We go forward with hope and optimism. The more people know about cultivated meat the more excited they are but initial scepticism and lack of comfort totally makes sense. Younger consumers are much more receptive to this and I’m confident they will embrace it.
JF: Upside Foods recently appointed its first human resources officer and the COO role you hold has only been in existence since 2021. Is executive team growth essential at this stage in the company’s development?
AC: It’s about questioning whether we have the right talent in the right roles heading to the next chapter, the journey towards commercialisation. We are moving quickly and looking at infrastructure and scale.
JF: Having worked for such a large company in the food and beverage sector [PepsiCo], did you have any reservations about joining a start-up company at the pre-production stage?
AC: Leaving a company and team I loved was definitely a hard decision but in retrospect everything I learned and did there ultimately prepared me for my work at Upside. I’ve always been passionate about social impact through business and I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to transform our food system for the better and make a positive impact on a grand scale.
JF: What strategic insights have you gained from your earlier career that will help you in this job?
AC: Firstly, having the right team and culture with a growth mindset is the ultimate determinant of success. That is true across industries, products and geographies – and matters even more when you are pioneering an industry and doing work that has never been done before. Secondly, creating a great breakthrough product is not enough. To truly thrive, you need to establish a strong connection with your consumers and customers and understand what inspires and motivates them. At Upside, this starts with producing high-quality, safe and delicious meat, educating consumers about what cultivated meat is and why it’s better for animals, the planet and human health; and ultimately inviting and inspiring consumers to be part of changing our food system for the better.
JF: Upside Foods has attracted some big-name investors such as Tyson Foods and agri-food giant Cargill and raised US$400m in a funding round in April last year. Are those investors pushing you to speed things up?
AC: We are all aligned. We are all here because we want to change the world and need to be operating at a level of scale that matters by moving as quickly as we can but safely and responsibly. It’s a very thoughtful approach, not speed at all costs by any means.
JF: But you still face those three issues of the cost of media, gaining full regulatory approval and the unknown that is consumer sentiment.
AC: Those are the things we spend all our working hours on. When we solve that trifecta we can take on the world.
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