What I talk about when I talk about an FDA "No Questions" letter, the newly formed Fungi association, and how seaweed may solve our packaging woes.
This week, Upside Foods received a “No Questions” letter from the Food & Drug Administration (FDA). An unclear bit of jargon. In plain English, it means the FDA accepted Upside Foods' conclusion (written and determined by salaried employees of Upside) that its cultivated meat product is safe to eat. With this letter, the startups lab-grown chicken—but no other meat—has been deemed safe for human consumption.
The FDA wrote: We have no questions at this time regarding UPSIDE’s conclusion that foods comprised of or containing cultured chicken cell material resulting from the production process defined in CCC 000002 are as safe as comparable foods produced by other methods.
This is the first cultivated meat company to achieve such an important sign-off from the FDA. (In Singapore, you can already order hybrid chicken nuggets—made of plant and cultured cells—from Alameda-based Eat Just.)
One of the top question posed during the publicity tour for my book was this: When will lab-grown meat be for sale? To set my words in “stone” here, I said: Not any time soon, and it will take a decade for it to be found in the freezer aisle. My opinion was made up of years of research and interviews (although none with the FDA because they wouldn’t talk), and my personal hope that US regulatory agencies would move slowly and cautiously during their assessment of lab-grown meat.
When I’ve visited startups to taste their cultured meat, I’m required to sign a waiver releasing them of any responsibility. These novel foods have existed for such a short time. Do we know enough to let them into our supply chain, our supermarkets, our diet? I’ll let you answer that one for yourself.
Industry insiders said that approval would come by the end of 2022. (I guess they knew more than me.) To be clear, a “No Questions” letter is not an approval, or a determination that cultivated chicken can be sold, yet. (A “No Questions” letter is also what Impossible Foods rec’d when it wanted the agency to determine that its heme was GRAS or Generally Recognized As Safe.) Upside Foods cultivated chicken still needs regulatory approval from the USDA on its actual product, and, we can only hope, there will stil be further site-specific scientific reviews of the technological process (from the FDA) to create an analogue to the chicken we already know.
Before issuing its letter, the FDA asked 27 follow-up questions or requests for more information. You can read the 104-page document written by Upside Foods but warning: you probably need a PhD. The document reminds me of being fact checked on essays I’ve written about myself. Did you do this? Yes. Did you do that? Yes. (I’m fact checking myself, which doesn’t seem quite right.) A positive from this moment is that we’re getting a clearer look at what Upside Foods is doing to create its chicken. You can read a step-by-step of the process here. Much doesn’t sound like food, and certainly nothing that sounds tempting but the first place you’ll get to try it will be Atelier Crenn, a three-Michelin star restaurant in San Francsico. I bet it will be delicious.
A frequent complaint I hear from folks outside of the food-tech sector is regarding the lack of transparency, which I can’t argue with. I want more information, and “no more questions” will never cross my lips. As these startups raise money, tackle technical feats of scaling and find ways to create meat, there’s also an element of Pandora’s Box. Are we sure we’re ready to let this out into the wild? Perhaps, founders might say, it’s the same leap as being willing to take one of the recent vaccines. If they say this, maybe they’ll have a point. In the meantime, what’s on my plate? More mushrooms!
Sweetgreen launched a new salad topped with mycelium “chicken” created by Colorado-based Meati. This is the mega-salad chain’s first toe-dip into “New Foods”. (If you recognize the name Meati, it’s because the startup is in my book.) If you live in Los Angeles, you can get the salad at Sweetgreen’s Culver City R & D location.
Last week a group of mycelium, fungi, and koji startups came together to form the Fungi Protein Association. This grouping of like-minded startups is becoming more of a thing although rooted in the past, eg. the American Sugar Alliance. Trade groups already exist for lab-grown meat (meat, poultry and seafood), upcycled foods and vertical farms. (Sidebar: Looks like Meati isn’t joining the fungi association.)
Past-its-time bread is being re-routed to a local mushroom grower for use as a substrate (it’s mixed with sawdust). After 4-12 weeks, the mushrooms are sold back to Bio-Planet, a supermarket in Belgium that supplies the stale bread.
Learn what a melittologist is by reading “Digging for Bees,” a story about wild, solitary and nonhoney bees. Honey bees are used for the majority of crop pollination, but “nearly all reproduction of wild plants is aided by nonhoneybees.” Related to this, read my story in Bon Appétit about a startup making honey in a lab.
Seaweed is being turned into “plastic” lining on to-go containers, edible bubbles (like what’s used for laundry detergent), paper and film-based packaging. Made by Notpla, the London-based startup makes the material out of a non-chemically modified polysaccharide-base. My readers know where I stand on PFAS (worrisome plastics found rampant in our food supply) and in compostable packaging and cutlery (that isn’t actually compostable). Let’s hope this catches on.
Where you can find me:
My book is on the shelves of the English-Language Library of Angers. I found out from L., a fellow writer and artist who writes a newsletter called Rendered. Last March, she published a post titled “Imaginary Food” that I’m referenced in. (Her watercolors are also lovely.)
This Thanksgiving week, I’ll be backpacking in Death Valley followed by day hikes in Zion National Park. Send your hiking tips for Zion and any yummy family-favorite Thanksgiving day recipes.
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Great piece! An interesting view into an emerging field.
Also, thank you for the shoutout!