The future of food: what’s behind the cell-cultured meat industry regulations?

Photo/Elena Resko
Cultured meat

The first-ever lab-grown burger was created at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, and eaten at a news conference in London in 2013. While everyone who tried a bite had something different to say about the taste and texture of the meat, it was agreed that this could be the start of something big. The technology has advanced since, and now over 150 companies across the world are figuring out ways to culture meat.   

The primary aim of the cultivated meat industry is quite simple. To significantly reduce the need to farm animals, feed a growing population and possibly tackle the climate crisis. So why hasn’t it taken the world by storm already?

Much of this is because novel products like cell-cultured meat are required to be approved by governing bodies that have regulations in place, to ensure that safety standards are met. According to Daan Luining, co-founder and CTO of Dutch cultivated meat company Meatable, if food laws are not adhered to, it can have disastrous consequences.

“We take food very seriously because everybody eats. I think that’s the bottom line. So you should be very careful what you’re feeding your population,” said Luining.

Table of contents

    When will cultured meat reach the European market? 

    But in Europe, this process can take a relatively long time. As the European Union (EU) consists of 27 countries at present, engaging with multiple governments to sanction products that impact a large population, when compared to other regions, could take a while. Moreover, Luining explained that in the EU, the path towards approval can be a long, drawn-out one that could take 24 months for evaluation of a product. However, this tends to go on for longer, as dossiers are often sent back to companies instructing further tests to be conducted, delaying the process for up to five years. And startups like Meatable, which was founded five years ago, do not have the luxury to wait that long. This is why Meatable decided to set foot into the more receptive Singaporean market. To become more familiar with the flavors that would win over the Singaporean population, the company has collaborated with the plant-based company Love Handle, which is located in Singapore.

    Singapore: a hotspot for cultivated meat 

    Singapore was the first country to approve slaughter-free meat in 2020. The American company Eat Just paved its way, through the sale of cell-cultured chicken nuggets. Since then, the country has been hailed as a hub for the ​​ alternative protein industry. On account of rapid urbanization, the island nation has limited farmland, which has led to over 90% of its food being imported. Luining believes that this could be why the country is keen on adopting novel food technologies.

    Having received the green light from the Singapore Food Agency (SFA), Meatable held its first tasting in the country two months ago. It aims to launch its product in the market next year.

    The product, which is based on cell culture technology, is derived from pluripotent cells, which are a kind of stem cells that have immense growth potential. These cells are able to develop into adult muscle and fat cells in eight days.

    “This is unheard of in the field of stem cell biology; turning a pluripotent cell into an adult muscle or fat cell within eight days is unprecedented. It doesn’t exist anywhere in the world. And that was really, for me, the aha moment,” said Luining.

    Luining expressed that the SFA’s clearance could be a way into other markets as well, as it enables the company to gather evidence on consumer acceptance. In fact, it was just two days ago that the company announced, along with Dutch food tech company Mosa Meat, that they are collaborating with the Dutch government to taste test cultivated meat and seafood under limited conditions in the country. The move makes the Netherlands the first nation in the EU to allow pre-approved tastings of lab-grown food.

    U.S. regulation authorizes cell-cultured meat

    Meanwhile, the U.S. has joined Singapore in authorizing the commercialization of cell-cultured meat. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) – which along with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are the regulatory agencies that carry out food product approvals – gave the nod to California-based Upside Foods and Good Meat (which is owned by Eat Just) to sell their alternative protein products.

    In the U.S., meat and poultry must pass inspection and be appropriately labeled before being commercially sold, according to the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) and Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA). As per these guidelines, Good Meat’s facilities and equipment were vetted to ensure safety and sanitary conditions.

    Food safety regulations should be critical to every nation around the world, according to Jennifer Stojkovic, founder of the Vegan Women Summit (VWS) and alternative protein investment firm Joyful Ventures.

    Stojkovic said: “We want to make sure that people are healthy, that they’re not in danger.”

    “Cultivated meat has been approved and deemed safe now by two different regulatory bodies. So we don’t expect there to be more challenges in terms of safety,” said Stojkovic, who added that this comes at a time when the USDA has raised concerns over the accuracy of claims of antibiotic-free meat.

    Slaughter-free food: better for the environment?

    While cultivated meat products have to be authorized, many plant-based meat producers do not have to seek approval. This is because unlike cultured meat – which is currently a debut product – plant-based foods like soybeans and pea protein have already been licensed for sale, according to Stojkovic. But exceptions like California-based Impossible Foods had to undergo FDA authorization as it sought to market a novel ingredient, plant-based heme. The company extracted DNA from soy, which was inserted into a genetically engineered yeast that underwent fermentation to produce heme.  

    As cultivated meat expands access to food, it could possibly reduce world hunger. Besides, the slaughter-free method that does not involve cramming animals into farms, could witness a decline in water usage by up to 96% and land use by 99%. As one of the most water intensive crops in the U.S. is alfalfa, which is used to feed cattle and dairy cows, Stojkovic believes that the necessity to lower the water footprint could drive attention towards cultivated meat products.

    However, the industry is not without its critics. A yet-to-be-peer-reviewed report by University of California, Davis claimed that the culture media that aids in the growth of the animal cells, raises the global warming potential.

    Also, cost is a worry for many. As it cost Maastricht University $330,000 to create the first-ever cell-cultured burger, it initially put off people from considering cultivated protein as a viable option. But prices have fallen since then, with a burger currently costing $9.80. Still, this is more expensive than the average supermarket burger. The pandemic has spiked world hunger to 828 million people experiencing food insecurity, according to the World Health Organization, and so there is all the more reason to guarantee affordability. 

    Global steps towards developing alternative protein

    As more companies across the world develop cell-cultured meat and push to get their products approved, further slashing of production costs is foreseeable. Countries like Israel are making strides, having set up the world’s first cultured meat facility in 2021. Now, the country’s Steakholder Foods has become the first company to generate 3D-printed fish filets.  

    Moreover, China’s five-year agricultural plan entails investments in cultivated meat research, like with clean energy as it taps into its renewable resources. And countries like Qatar are also looking to invest in alternative protein technology, according to Stojkovic.

    “In parts of the Middle East… there are severe challenges to having any sort of animal agriculture, and so many of these nations see cultivated meat, plant-based meat and food technology as a way to safeguard their future food systems. We’ve seen quite a bit of investment that’s gone into the sector from places like Qatar and Saudi Arabia,” said Stojkovic.

    To add to that, in regions in the U.S. and Canada where skies were blanketed with smoke because of the ongoing wildfires, climate action is a pressing issue. 

    “You’re now seeing the repercussions of the changing climate all over North America,” said Stojkovic, who believes that as a climate investor, the “best climate impact you can make” is investing in alternative protein. “I think cultivated meat represents one of many technologies that can quite literally reinvent the way that we eat.”

    As Meatable aims to make its way into Singapore soon, Luining expressed that dietary preferences are often associated with one’s identity.

    “What you eat is part of your identity,” said Luining. “You have all these subcategories right now that people like to express their identity with.”

    One factor that dissuades people from rooting for the sale of cell-cultured meat is that some perceive it as “unnatural.” But Luining thinks otherwise. He believes that alternative proteins could fulfill dietary needs as well as be uncompromising with regards to taste, while being environmentally conscious.

    “We’d like to reframe the conversation; going from a system that doesn’t feel natural anymore to us. Industrial farming doesn’t feel natural to us at all, and then reframing that into: “Hey, but we’re innovating on that to create something that still gets the real stuff, but without harming animals.” That should be the new norm for society. I think that is what we’re trying to emphasize.”

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