Illinois, Once the Slaughterhouse of the World, to be a Leader in Fake Meat

From the Civil War until the 1920s, more meat was processed in Chicago than in any other place in the world. Chicago’s infamous Union Stockyards opened to the public in 1865. The Stockyards were the creation of nine railroads consolidating operations, with seven stock yards opening on Christmas Day that year. 

Chicago’s place as a major railroad hub and the massive spike in meat needed by the U.S. government to feed Union troops during the Civil War were major contributors to the stockyards’ rise. The Chicago facility would soon be known as the ‘Slaughterhouse of the World’ and the ‘Wall Street of Meatpacking.’ The Stockyards were built on marshland on the city’s south side. 

The Union Stockyards revolutionized the way food was consumed in the U.S. In 1890, it took about eight to 10 hours for a skilled butcher and his assistant to slaughter and dress a steer on a farm. In Chicago, the process took only 35 minutes. Big packing houses were killing 1,500 to 2,500 steers a day, and they were killing between 6,000 to 8,000 hogs and sheep per day. 

The area also became a tourist attraction into the 20th Century, with 500,000 people a year coming to visit the stockyards and packing houses. The stockyards included 450 acres covered with pens, railroad chutes, and office buildings. The adjacent meat packing plants included several hundred more acres, and people would come and tour both areas. 

The stockyards operated for over 100 years and became the focal point of the rise of some of the earliest international companies. The rise and fall of the development reflected the evolution of transportation services and technology in America. The stockyards were considered one of the chief drivers that empowered the animal-industrial complex into its modern form. 

Fast forward to 2023, and Illinois is once again at the forefront of the modern meat industry. UPSIDE Foods, the first cultivated meat company to receive FDA approval, selected the Chicago suburb of Glenview for a $141 million facility investment. The former Allstate campus on I-294 in Glenview has been razed and redeveloped. UPSIDE will lease 187,000 square feet in one of the 10 buildings on site. The company received final approval to sell lab-grown meat from the Department of Agriculture in June. Operations are expected to begin in 2025. 

At least 75 new jobs are expected to be created, from warehousing and logistics to food production. UPSIDE is a pioneer in the production of cultivated meat, which involves growing meat, poultry, and seafood directly from animal cells. The Glenview facility will be designed to house massive cultivators with capacities of up to 100,000 liters, making it one of the largest cultivated meat production facilities in the world. 

UPSIDE is expected to initially produce ground cultivated chicken products, with plans to expand to other species and whole-textured formats down the road. Lab-grown meat is touted as a more humane and sustainable way to supply meat products without raising and slaughtering animals. 

However, there are many challenges surrounding the lab-grown meat industry. It’s projected very high cost is one, with one estimate being around $40 per pound to eventually purchase at a grocery store. Even in the current era of high inflation, traditional meat can still cost under $5 a pound. Getting production up to a viable scale is another and would require significant investment from the biopharma industry. Also, there are biological limitations to overcome. Is it actually possible to scale cellular agriculture to a point at which production is economical? That’s a significant question that needs to be addressed. 

Cultured meat uses less land than herds of cattle or flocks of sheep, and it also uses less water and antibiotics. However, the environmental costs of the highly specific nutrients required to grow the product rapidly add up. These include running laboratories to extract growth factors from animal serums, as well as growing crops for sugars and vitamins. A study by researchers at two California universities found that cultured meat production could emit between four to 25 times more carbon dioxide per kilogram than regular beef. 

Agriculture is big business in Illinois. There are over 72,000 farms in Illinois and farmland encompasses about 75 percent of the state’s total land area. Beef cows are found on over 20 percent of Illinois farms. Illinois ranks fifth in the nation in exporting of agricultural products, shipping over $10 billion worth of goods annually. Illinois is a leading producer of soybeans, corn, and swine. Illinois has a rich tradition of agricultural heritage and family farms are an institution in the state. Farms are passed down from generation to generation and the industry continues to thrive despite ever-present challenges the come up. 

“Real meat is raised on a farm and not in a laboratory,” stated Rep. Chris Miller, who owns and operates a family farm. “It’s more efficient, it’s much more easily mass-produced, it’s much cheaper, healthier, and tastes better. Illinois farmers know what they are doing, and they do it well.”