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Is Upside Foods Lying About its Biotech Chicken?
New investigation reveals employees joke the company is the next Theranos
I have written previously about how the entire “cell-cultured meat” industry is likely to become the next Theranos, the failed blood testing tech company that landed its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, in jail for nine years for fraud.
A new deeply reported investigation by reporters Matt Reynolds and Joe Fassler, published on Friday at Wired, reveals employees at Upside Foods have the same idea.
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The article is entitled: “Insiders Reveal Major Problems at Lab-Grown-Meat Startup Upside Foods” with the subhead: “Billion-dollar cultivated-meat startup Upside Foods wants you to think the breakthrough chicken fillets it sells are made in a futuristic factory. A WIRED investigation tells a different story.”
(As a side note, I never use the BS term “cultivated” and here is why.)
Upside Foods, one of the two leading biotech meat companies in the U.S., made a majorly big deal about its flagship facility when it opened in late 2021, complete with live videos and other fanfare. They dubbed the facility EPIC (Engineering, Production, and Innovation Center) and claimed: “the 53,000 square foot campus located in Emeryville, California, is the most advanced cultivated meat production facility in the world. It is designed to produce any species of meat, poultry, and seafood—in both ground and whole cut format…”.
The place certainly looked like the real deal with its large shiny tanks, which Upside referred to as “custom-made, patented cultivators” that “can produce over 50,000 pounds of finished product, with a future capacity of over 400,000 pounds per year.”
Sounds impressive. Except for one problem. Almost two years later, the “cultivators” (aka bioreactors) designed to make the whole cut chicken simply don’t work.
According to the Wired investigation, which involved speaking with numerous employees, both past and current, the company is instead making its lab-grown chicken in a laborious process that defies the company’s PR image of deploying cutting edge technology to make many thousands of pounds of meat. From the story:
Employees grow thin sheets of tissue in small plastic flasks called roller bottles and combine them to create a larger hunk of chicken, an approach that is expensive and requires many hours of labor to produce even a small amount of meat. According to former and current employees at Upside, this process happens in a laboratory that doesn’t feature in the factory tours Upside gives to journalists and members of the public.
Translation: EPIC appears to be a fraud.
And yet, just two months ago, Upside Foods’ CEO Ume Valeti was giving media tours showing off EPIC as if it were fully functional. On July 9th, CBS Sunday Morning aired a seven-minute video segment with NPR’s Allison Aubrey conducing an interview of Valeti that included a tour of EPIC. About one minute in, Aubrey, who appears to be eating a ground meat chicken patty, asks Valeti if that chicken was made in the tanks and Valeti replies “you can ask me that a thousand times and the answer would be yes yes yes.”
But this is where things get highly deceptive and a tad confusing.
While it’s true that Upside’s ground products are made in some of the tanks, that product is not yet approved by the federal government. The feds have only approved the "whole cut chicken” product that Upside is now serving (in extremely small quantities) at an upscale restaurant in San Francisco. That process is the one that Wired uncovered as not being made in the tanks at all, but rather by roller bottles.
Back to the CBS video. The very next cut of the segment shows the tanks that do not work, with NPR’s Aubrey explaining that the company recently received government approval, and the very next image shows the whole cut that was in fact approved, but again, is not made in the tanks.
If all of this sounds confusing, that’s the point. Upside Foods is engaging in highly deceptive PR techniques. Don’t look behind the curtain of the shiny tanks to see that they are not even functional. It’s a lot of smoke and mirrors for a company that has raised over $600 million, achieving “unicorn status” of an over $1 billion valuation.
Again, from the Wired story:
“One day people are going to find out that none of those things work,” the employee says of the tissue cultivators. But Upside staffers continue to show off the reactors to guests on tours of the facility, suggesting that they are part of a functioning process, the employee says. “It’s like, cute story, y’all,” the current employee adds. …
An industry insider with firsthand knowledge of the situation, but who has asked to remain anonymous out of fear of professional repercussions, also confirms that the custom-made tissue cultivators have recently been sitting empty, despite their prominent placement in Upside’s facility.
Meanwhile Upside Foods recently announced its plans to build a “commercial scale” biotech meat plant (dubbed “Rubicon”), this time in Chicago. Once again, the PR blitz was impressive, with quotes from numerous politicians, right up to Illinois Governor JB Pritzker who celebrated the plan for (what else?) “creating new good paying jobs”.
But if Rubicon turns out anything like EPIC, it may be another bust, with people losing their jobs to yet another false promise of biotechnology, just like Theranos. As Wired found, even some employees made the comparison:
“It was a running joke: ‘Are we the next Theranos?’” says one former employee. “I don’t think it necessarily means that they are the next Theranos,” the former employee adds. “No one is dying. People are being lied to, but no one is going to die. Ideally.”
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