Upside Foods gets FDA nod on safety of its cultivated meat : Shots - Health News The FDA has taken a first step towards green-lighting cultivated meat. The agency gave a safety nod to Upside Foods, which provided documentation to show their meat grown from animal cells is safe.

FDA gives safety nod to 'no kill' meat, bringing it closer to sale in the U.S.

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Americans eat a lot of meat, more than 220 pounds of it per year per person. And meat production is responsible for a lot of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. As the world focuses this week on climate change, there's growing interest in a very new way to produce meat. NPR's Allison Aubrey visited a company founded by a heart doctor who is now growing meat without the animals and spoke with our co-host Rachel Martin about it. And a warning - this segment contains a graphic description of a chicken-processing plant.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: I'm so glad you're here. I have so many questions. I guess the big one is, how do you make meat without involving animals?

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Yes, I get it. It's sort of mind-bending. So let me just say from the start, what this is, is the idea that you don't have to grow meat inside an animal's body. You can actually take cells from an animal and grow their tissue outside their body. Now, let's just be clear. This is not the veggie burger. It's not the Impossible burger.


AUBREY: This is completely different, OK? So this company was founded by Dr. Uma Valeti. He's a cardiologist. And about a decade ago, he told me that he had kind of a eureka moment. He realized that it might be possible to extract cells from an animal and grow meat directly from these cells. Now, he got this idea while he was working with heart attack patients at the Mayo Clinic.

UMA VALETI: We were working on stem cells. We were taking stem cells from patients who had a very large heart attack. We would isolate the types of cells that'll grow into heart muscle, and I would re-inject them into the patient's heart again.

AUBREY: You know, he figured if it was possible to use cells to help grow muscle in the human heart, it would also be possible to use animal cells to grow meat.

VALETI: Once it got into my head, it was nearly impossible to get it out.

AUBREY: Now, there were two big motivations for him. He grew up eating meat. But during medical school, he worked at a campus dining hall, and he was sent to a slaughterhouse. And he recalls the smell and the scene of the production line.

VALETI: These were hundreds of chickens in minutes. They were literally moving past, like, at blazing speed. And they would be hanging upside down with blood dripping everywhere. That was an image that was - like, it just stayed in my head.

AUBREY: So this really kind of bothered him. And the other big motivating factor for him was learning more about the environmental footprint of meat. It turns out that food production is responsible for one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions. And much of this is linked to animals. For instance, cattle create a lot of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. There's also land use. There's water use. There's energy use. And a global panel of scientists has also concluded that it's going to be nearly impossible to meet climate goals if agriculture doesn't change.

MARTIN: So did he end up leaving his career in medicine?

AUBREY: That's exactly what he did. He started fundraising. He hired a bunch of scientists to really dig in and help him figure out how to do this. And there were lots of skeptics.

VALETI: Everybody thought this was just science fiction.

AUBREY: But a decade later, he's actually producing the meat. The company is worth a billion dollars. Investors now include big meat companies including Tyson and Cargill. And Uma Valeti took me on a tour of Upside's new 70,000-square-foot space in Emeryville, Calif., in the East Bay.

VALETI: We're now walking through the FDA-regulated side of the production facility.

AUBREY: It is open and cavernous with big glass walls. And we enter this room that's filled with these huge, shiny stainless steel tanks.

Looks a little bit like a brewery.

VALETI: Yeah. But I think the big changes - it's all glass walls.

AUBREY: Nothing to hide here.

VALETI: Right.

AUBREY: It's in here where all the cells are growing into meat. Now, Valeti and his team have spent a long time figuring out which mix of cells, which have been extracted or biopsied from animals, are best for growing the meat. They've also had to figure out how much to feed them. Now, all cells, whether they're in an animal or growing out in a tank, need to be fed a few basic things to grow. So you can kind of think of this room as the mess hall for the cells.

VALETI: What we're looking at on the left-hand side is where we make the feed.

AUBREY: So this is where you're putting your amino acids, your fats...

VALETI: Yes. Yeah.

AUBREY: ...Your sugars, right into these tanks.


AUBREY: And on this steady diet, the cells multiply, proliferate. In these tanks, they're growing into chicken.

VALETI: Can you see those four yellow pumps?

AUBREY: He can add some more vitamins or nutrients.

VALETI: So we only give the cells what they need, so there is no excess nutrients that are given and wasted.

AUBREY: And his team continues to tinker with the alchemy to get it just right. They add oxygen to circulate the nutrients around the cells.

VALETI: It's kind of substituting the performance of what blood would do in an animal.

AUBREY: And it takes just two to four weeks to go from cells to meat that's ready to be harvested.

MARTIN: I mean, that is just unbelievable. Did you try it?

AUBREY: Yep. I tasted it. Actually, Upside senior food scientist - his name is Daniel Davila. He prepared me a dish.

DANIEL DAVILA: It's our chicken fillet, which is going to be served with a white wine butter sauce.

AUBREY: He pan-seared the chicken fillet.

DAVILA: You get this kind of really nice Maillard browning that you see there.


AUBREY: I'm really starting to get that sense of meat is being cooked.

DAVILA: Yeah (laughter). Yeah.

AUBREY: Then, he plates the dish.

DAVILA: All right. Please enjoy.

AUBREY: It really is delicious. I'm not sure if I'm tasting the butter wine sauce or if I'm tasting the Upside chicken.

And when I tell Uma Valeti that the texture is just like chicken, his response?

VALETI: It is chicken. It is just chicken grown directly from animal cells in a different way, in a very clean, controlled environment.

MARTIN: OK. But clearly, Allison, you were with the chef. So tell me, really. How does it taste?

AUBREY: You know, chicken is a bit of a blank slate. So I kind of think it does depend on how it's prepared, how it's served. But really, what I think they've nailed here, Rachel, is that when we eat meat, it's that texture that we really notice. It's like, do the little bits get stuck in your teeth? You know, is it that chewy texture we're used to?


AUBREY: And that's where I think they've gotten really close.

MARTIN: We've acknowledged chicken is chicken. But when people buy red meat, when they buy beef, they don't use a lot of sauce, right? Like, they want it to taste like beef. Do they make beef?

AUBREY: The goal is to make beef. The environmental footprint of beef is something that's motivating these companies to get there. But I think it's going to be harder to reproduce a filet mignon.

MARTIN: Right. All right. Last question, Allison - are these companies likely to win approval here in the U.S.?

AUBREY: You know, I have been talking to the Food and Drug Administration. They would need to authorize these products for any of the cultivated meat to start to be sold. Now, I should point out - I had to sign a waiver before tasting this meat because it's not yet approved. These companies are going through the process now, working with both the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, working on a joint regulatory framework. And their hope is that they get a green light soon.

MARTIN: NPR's Allison Aubrey. So interesting. Thank you so much, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you, Rachel.


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