BERKELEYSIDE — Standing at the intersection between the carnivore’s desire for tasty meats and good stewardship of the planet’s resources is an innovative take on the center of the plate. It’s called cultivated meat, and Berkeley’s Upside Foods is leading the way.
“By cultivating the meat people love, we believe we can offer tremendous benefits to the environment, public health, and animal welfare,” says Upside Foods’ COO Amy Chen. “It’s a transformative approach that will allow us to meet the growing demand for meat in a sustainable way.”
The world population is expected to reach almost 10 billion in 2050. Chen says the demand for meat will double and the planet can’t sustain meat consumption for that long at the current consumption rate.
For environmentalists, the concern is that age-old meat production is inefficient and produces greenhouse gas emissions. For animal welfare activists, there’s another concern — current meat production practices are inhumane. But meat has been a part of the human diet for thousands of years. Upside Foods wants to change the meat production process to address these concerns, in a way that will appeal to meat lovers, animal lovers, and environmentalists alike.
Cultivated meat is real meat grown directly from animal cells. Upside Foods takes a sampling of cells from a healthy living animal or fertilized egg and feeds the cells similar nutrients to what an animal would be fed.
Using modern technology, Upside Foods has created a controlled environment where the cells can divide and grow. The process takes place in a large stainless steel tank called a cultivator. As a result, people can eat real meat, produced in a clean, germ-free setting that eliminates the risk of foodborne illnesses caused by bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli.
The company’s first product is chicken. However, Chen says, the company can ultimately produce any type of meat — beef, pork, turkey, duck, hot dogs, steak and even seafood.
“It’s the meat you’ve always loved,” Chen says, “made in a better way. And it tastes amazing.”
Located at a Wareham Development property in West Berkeley, Upside Foods employs a number of UC Berkeley graduates and is nestled among a cluster of biotech and food innovation companies that are producing traditional meat alternatives.
With the opening last week of its Engineering, Production, and Innovation Center (EPIC), Upside Foods is one of many Berkeley research and development (R&D) companies that serve as catalysts for job creation throughout the broader East Bay. In fact, the firm won the Food category prize last month in the East Bay Innovation Awards, in part because of its plans for growing beyond the 150 employees it has today, said Stephen Baiter, executive director of the East Bay Economic Development Alliance.
What’s more, Upside Foods was the first cultivated meat company in the world, in an industry that now includes nearly 100 players. Upside expects to be one of the first cultivated meat companies to move from R&D to scaled production.
However, its growth won’t be without regulatory approval and a massive effort to influence those who are tied to the traditions of the past. In that regard, Upside isn’t just in the business of food innovation, but is also on the forefront of educating consumers on the meat production process. The company’s new facility will offer community tours beginning in early 2022 that will allow consumers to see the production process firsthand.
Because the concept of cultivated meat is unfamiliar, some people may be intimidated by it. Chen likens the process of cultivating meat to making yogurt or brewing beer or wine. What makes Upside Foods so innovative is using these processes on meat production.
“We are confident that the more people know who we are and what we’re doing — and particularly once they taste our delicious meat — the more comfortable they’ll feel with us as a company and the cultivated meat industry as a whole,” Chen says.
One early adopter will be Dominique Crenn, the co-owner and chef at the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Atelier Crenn in San Francisco and two smaller eateries. In 2019, she removed meat (except seafood) from the menus at all her restaurants. She cited the environmental impact of current food production methods as the reason. As soon as Upside Foods receives regulatory approval, Crenn plans to bring meat back to the menu with Upside chicken. While Upside Foods’ first customers will be restaurants, the company plans longer-term to allow consumers to get their hands on cultivated meats for home consumption through retailers.
For Chen, Upside Foods’ vision is personal. A native of Texas, she says she loves meat but she also loves the environment and has felt that conflict of values in her own life. She suspects there are others who feel the same way, and is delighted to be part of the Berkeley community, where companies are aiming to change the world through science and technology. She believes the next generation of consumers is already sold on the idea that innovative technologies can create a better food system. Upside Foods wants to be part of the solution.