New East Bay factory producing lab-grown meat plans to produce 400,000 pounds per year

A huge facility designed to produce hundreds of thousands of pounds of cultured meat opened in Emeryville on Thursday – a significant step forward in an emerging but rapidly growing industry where meat is grown from animal cells without any slaughter.

The facility, which is part of a new $ 50 million, 53,000 square foot campus for Berkeley food technology company Upside Foods, is touted as the first of its kind in the world and ready for use at the ‘commercial scale. While other companies made cultured meat, also known as cultured meat or lab-grown meat, they generally worked in smaller labs.

The U.S. government has yet to approve the sale of cultured meat, but Upside Foods chief operating officer Amy Chen said the new facility is proof the technology is ready.

“It’s not a dream,” said Chen, who left a senior vice president position at PepsiCo to join Upside in June. “It’s not science fiction. This is the reality today.

Until the meat is legal for sale, the company will organize tours and test products. Once approved, Upside’s plan is to begin supplying restaurants, particularly the three-Michelin-starred Dominique Crenn’s Atelier Crenn, in San Francisco. After introducing the meat to the public through chefs, the next step is grocery stores – similar to the rollout followed by Impossible Foods, the Redwood City maker of compelling soy burgers. Unlike vegetable meats, cultured meat is actually fleshy meat of animal origin.

Upside Foods’ grow room in Emeryville is lined with large, brewery-like tanks.

Cayce Clifford / Special for The Chronicle

Located in a residential area near the Emeryville Public Market, the new Upside space looks like a brewery on steroids. It is capable of producing 50,000 pounds of meat per year, with room to eventually expand to 400,000 pounds.

Huge reservoirs called bioreactors line the main room, where cells harvested from living animals will be bathed in nutrients such as glucose, vitamins, and amino acids. Bioreactors create an environment similar to an animal’s body, and the nutrients nourish the cells until they grow larger, forming an unstructured product resembling ground meat. An additional, more complicated step is to create a scaffold that allows cells to grow together and form the fiber and texture you expect from a whole piece of meat, like a steak or chicken breast.

Advocates say the process not only avoids killing animals but, because it requires less water and soil, is a more efficient and climate-friendly way of producing meat. This is in part because the process is much faster, reducing the three years it takes for a cow to mature to a few weeks.

This sales pitch has generated huge interest in the industry, with Upside attracting more than $ 200 million in funding, according to Crunchbase. San Francisco cultured meat competitor Eat Just, also known for its plant-based egg substitute Just Egg, has taken in over $ 450 million.

Audrey Gyr, a startup specialist at the Good Food Institute, a non-profit cultured and plant-based advocacy organization, said Upside’s new facility is a testament to the industry’s growth in recent years. years – and continued growth. . A 2021 McKinsey & Co. report predicts that the cultured meat market could reach $ 25 billion by 2030.

“Technology and innovation have come a long way to enable them to build this type of facility and go beyond the lab,” said Gyr, who is not affiliated with Upside.

When Upside Foods, formerly known as Memphis Meats, started in 2015, it was the world’s first cultured meat company. Now there are at least 80, according to the Good Food Institute.

An employee works in the Upside Foods grow room in Emeryville.

An employee works in the Upside Foods grow room in Emeryville.

Cayce Clifford special for The Chronicle

Gyr said there are other cultured meat companies that are planning production facilities similar to Upside, which have rooms to harvest meat, cook meat, work with raw meat and test recipes. . For example, farmed salmon start-up Wildtype has announced plans for a facility and a sushi tasting room in San Francisco, although it will only produce 50,000 pounds a year.

In addition to being the first to build a facility, Upside is also showcasing notable advancements in the industry, according to Gyr. The Berkeley company can grow cuts of meat – chicken breast is the company’s first planned product – while many others are only capable of producing ground meat. And, given the right cells to grow, his plant can produce any type of meat, from duck to lobster.

Upside Foods' new plant in Emeryville includes several cultured meat production rooms.

Upside Foods’ new plant in Emeryville includes several cultured meat production rooms.

Cayce Clifford / Special for The Chronicle

Upside says it is ready to start production as soon as it gets a green light from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, which agreed to jointly regulate the new industry in 2019, but failed to approved the sale of cultured meat. Again. The only country so far that allows the sale of cultured meat – especially chicken from Eat Just – is Singapore.

The two U.S. agencies have been mostly silent on the industry since 2019, with the exception of an announcement in September seeking comment on how to label cultured meat. The USDA and FDA could approve specific products like Upside’s chicken breast on a case-by-case basis before determining the language of the industry, according to Gyr. Either way, there is no set timetable.

Chen declined to say how much Upside’s first meat will cost each time it is sold, but suggested it would be on par with high-end chicken such as pasture-raised birds.

Despite the climate-focused missions of cultured meat companies, it is still unclear whether growing meat from cells is better for the environment than animal farming. This is because there has not yet been a commercial scale production facility that researchers could examine; the few studies available are based on speculation.

Amy Chen, COO of Upside Foods, said the company wants to demystify the process of transforming cultured meat through its new factory.

Amy Chen, COO of Upside Foods, said the company wants to demystify the process of transforming cultured meat with its new factory.

Cayce Clifford / Special for The Chronicle

An oft-cited 2015 study in Environmental Science & Technology, for example, agreed with food technology companies that cultivated meat would require less land and water, but said that “these benefits could come at the expense of” more intensive use of energy ”. Other speculative studies have determined that greenhouse gas emissions from cultured meat are likely to be lower than those from traditional beef, but not necessarily from poultry or pork.

More recently, a 2019 study by two researchers at the University of Oxford suggested that this greenhouse gas comparison could be misleading because cows produce methane and a factory would produce carbon dioxide. Methane persists in the atmosphere for about 12 years, far less than the long lifespan of carbon dioxide, which reaches up to 1,000 years.

Upside’s new installation, Gyr said, represents “an incredible opportunity to learn more” about what reality will be like.

Chen said the Upside facility uses 100% renewable energy and is already working on an analysis of its total environmental impact, with the hope that a third party will verify the company’s sustainability claims by the next. mid-2022.

One of the biggest challenges, however, will be convincing the masses to buy cultured meat. Chen said Upside will need to demystify the process to the public, which she called a key goal of the new production facility.

The company plans to offer virtual tours starting this week and then hosting in-person tours starting next year. Visitors will be able to view the facility from large windows throughout the building.

“Anyone who didn’t think this could be a reality now has a chance to see a vision come to life,” Chen said.

Janelle Bitker is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: Twitter: @janellebitker

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