Cell-cultured meat on store shelves this year? It’s unlikely.
Memphis Meats has rebranded as Upside Foods, and the company now predicts its lab-grown chicken will be ready for consumers in 2021. The U.S. government suggests otherwise.
Just months after Singapore approved the world’s first cell-cultured chicken for human consumption, leading cultivated meat company Memphis Meats has decided to change its name—a shift that signals a new phase in the race to bring a novel form of protein to the American public.
The company has rebranded as Upside Foods, a decidedly flashier incarnation that invites ready comparisons to the plant-protein companies Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. Unlike those next-generation veggie burger companies, though, Upside doesn’t sell a product yet—but it hopes to change that soon. In a press release plugging the rebrand, Upside announced that it intends to debut its first commercial offering, a cell-cultured chicken product, later this calendar year.
That timeline may be wishful thinking, since the federal government doesn’t seem prepared to grant approval to cell-based meat products anytime soon (more on that in a minute). Still, since Upside is widely viewed as the dominant player in the space—it was the first startup to pursue the impossible-seeming idea of cell-cultured meat, and has since received investment from major players like Cargill and Tyson Foods—it tends to act as a bellwether. In that sense, Upside’s newly launched website serves as a fascinating case study. It’s a preview of the techniques cultivated meat companies will use to sell us on the concept of meat produced without animals—even though we can’t actually buy those products yet.
With large-scale product launches on the immediate horizon, cultured meat companies no longer view investors as their primary audience—they’re starting to court the public.
In some ways, Upside, f/k/a Memphis, was not an obvious candidate for a head-to-toe brand reboot. The company—which uses biotechnology to culture meat from harvested animal cells, no slaughter required—is, for lack of a better term, killing it. After successfully growing edible beef, duck, and chicken products in the lab in 2016 and 2017, it capitalized on its R & D progress by raising $160 million in Series B financing in January 2020. That eye-popping funding round was a record figure for a cultured meat startup, with celebrity investors like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Kimbal Musk jumping on the bandwagon alongside prominent venture capital firms.
While the Memphis Meats moniker was always a bit inscrutable, in other words, it didn’t really seem to hold the company back. (The startup has no direct connection to Memphis, Tennessee, as CEO Uma Valeti somewhat awkwardly explained in a 2016 interview—it was mostly chosen as a word that tested well with focus groups.) Still, the decision marks an important turning point. Just a few years ago, the prospect of growing meat at scale in large bioreactors felt mostly speculative. That’s since changed. With large-scale product launches on the immediate horizon, cultured meat companies no longer view investors as their primary audience—they’re starting to court the public.
“We’re making meat in a new way,” the website’s copy reads. “One that satisfies our cravings, our conscience, and our heart.” Upside’s pitch seems to be aimed at people who enjoy meat but feel uncomfortable with the idea of slaughtering animals for food, or are concerned about the environmental impacts associated with meat production. “We shouldn’t have to choose between the meat we love and a thriving planet,” another website callout reads. The “upside” promised by the company, then, is about using technology to decouple pleasure from guilt—a brave new world where we can eat chicken without feeling implicated in the death of actual chickens. The appeal to empathy is unmistakable: Upside’s logo resembles a rounded Valentine’s Day heart.
“We have this opportunity to become the brand of choice for the new generation of meat lovers,” said Maria Occarina Macedo, director of brand and creative at Upside Foods, in an interview by phone. “We wanted to see ourselves as a beacon of optimism and hope. The brand really wanted to express this idea of goodness in a bold-but-friendly way.”
Significant questions remain about the health, environmental, and supply chain implications of cell-based meat, as writer and grocery industry veteran Errol Schweizer points out in a recent piece for Forbes. Still, appealing to the better angels of our nature may prove to be a shrewd strategy. In a recent survey of about 2,500 U.S. residents, Eat Just—the company that recently received permission to sell cultured meat in Singapore, and which also sells the plant-based Just Egg and Just Mayo brands—found that animal welfare and environmental concerns were among the top reasons people would buy cell-cultured products in lieu of traditional meat.
“We have this opportunity to become the brand of choice for the new generation of meat lovers.”
With that in mind, Upside’s brand evolution makes sense: While early-phase startups mostly want to impress potential investors with their tech, later-phase companies want to entice the public, and that pivot can be reflected in their names. This is, after all, Upside’s second rebrand—it was originally founded as Crevi, derived from the Latin word for “origin.” That choice may have projected academic sophistication to funders, but it doesn’t exactly excite the appetite (or pull at the heartstrings). Perfect Day, a cell-cultured dairy company, is another example. Its original name? Muufri.
But as cell-cultured meat companies strike a more public-facing stance, an odd dynamic is emerging. After years of promises and delays, companies like Upside and Eat Just are finally poised to break into the U.S. market—where federal regulatory agencies appear to be moving at a much more deliberate pace.
It doesn’t matter how sophisticated their product is, or how much investor pressure they face, or how much money they put into marketing: Companies can’t sell cultured meat in the U.S. without permission from the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA FSIS). As of this writing, no such approvals have been given. In fact, they can’t be given—the regulatory structure that would govern cultured meat is still being worked out.
Here’s what we know. The two federal agencies that oversee food production and marketing, USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), have agreed to jointly regulate cultured meat. In a March 2019 memorandum of understanding, the agencies staked out their territory: FDA, which also presides over biotechnology, will regulate the collection and growth of cultured cells. USDA, which regulates meat production, will oversee things once those cells are harvested—including any further processing of those cells into retail-ready products, as well as labeling considerations.
But while the agencies have clearly marked off their areas of expertise, they haven’t yet worked out the finer points of their respective areas of responsibility. That process only started in the summer of 2020, when USDA and FDA established interagency working groups to hash out the details in three areas: pre-market food safety assessments, inspections and the transition of oversight from FDA to USDA during the harvest stage, and USDA labeling oversight.
The agencies have said little about how that work is progressing, so I asked them. The response, in short: We’ll let you know when we let you know.
“FSIS and FDA are actively working to develop the processes and procedures for the safe production of human food products made using cell culture technology under their respective jurisdictions, but we don’t have a timeframe for when this work will be completed,” a FSIS spokesperson said, by email.
So while Upside is publicly pledging to release its first cell-cultured meat product this calendar year, the agencies that would make such a launch possible still have no timeframe for when the appropriate rules will be put into place. FSIS did say that it intends to solicit comments from industry and the public in the coming months, a process that would help it develop regulations for labeling. FDA has already put out a call for comments on the labeling of cell-based seafood.
“FSIS and FDA are actively working to develop the processes and procedures for the safe production of human food products made using cell culture technology under their respective jurisdictions, but we don’t have a timeframe for when this work will be completed.”
Meanwhile, the agencies may be actively working with industry behind the scenes—it’s hard to know. In response to my questions by email, Upside thanked USDA and FDA for “moving quickly and thoughtfully,” and said it was “grateful for their speed and openness to innovation.”
Still, considering the amount of work that remains, the odds that a cultured meat product will debut in the U.S. in 2021 seem vanishingly small. Cultured meat may now be an inevitable reality in the U.S., but it’s not an imminent one—and Upside seems to know this. Though its triumphant press release claims the company is “ready for business,” it also contains plenty of hedged language. Cultured chicken production is only “likely” to begin this year, it says, and that’s only “pending regulatory review.”
That’s not to say things aren’t moving quickly. This week, Eat Just announced it has secured $170 million in new funding to develop its cell-cultured meat product line, called GOOD Meat, a record-breaking bonanza that surpasses the sector-leading haul Upside pulled in last January. That’s a lot of money. And as long as investors are willing to spend it, cell-based meat companies will keep working to win American hearts and minds—even if they’re not yet able to feed American mouths.
Clarification: After this story ran, Upside Foods wrote to clarify the amount of its Series B funding. Though Upside announced the original raise at $161 million, as reported above, it has since grown to $186 million.