Singapore is the first country to grant approval to meat grown from animal cells, known as cultured meat. Will European countries follow suit?
Eat Just is a San Francisco-based company that sells plant-based alternatives to eggs and other animal products. The firm made headlines last week when it got regulatory approval to market cultured chicken in Singapore.
The company produces this chicken meat in 1,200-liter bioreactors using muscle cells from chickens. Over the last two years, Eat Just has provided the Singaporean authorities safety and quality data. “We included details on the purity, identity, and stability of chicken cells during the manufacturing process, as well as a detailed description of the manufacturing process,” said Andrew Noyes, Head of Global Communications at Eat Just.
Cultured meat relies on growing animal cells rather than on animal slaughter. It is also designed to resemble the composition of traditional meat products more closely than plant-based alternatives. “Our cultured chicken contains a high protein content, diversified amino acid composition, high relative content in healthy monounsaturated fats, and is a rich source of minerals,” said Noyes.
Though it’s still at an early stage, proponents say the technology could require fewer resources such as water and land than traditional agriculture, with fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
Cultured meat could also significantly lower the chances of transmitting food-borne disease. “Harvested cultured chicken met the standards of poultry meat, with extremely low and significantly cleaner microbiological content than conventional chicken,” Noyes explained. In addition, growing meat in bioreactors forgoes the need for giving animals antibiotics, which is a driver of antibiotic resistance.
“The Singaporean government has definitely been the most forward-thinking in working to attract cultivated meat companies to the country, and to provide various forms of support and incentives to make their country a global hub for this sector,” said Nick Cooney, founder and Managing Partner of the alternative protein investment firm Lever VC.
“We’re hopeful that Singapore’s regulatory approval can be a model for other countries formulating a pathway to market for cultured meat products,” Noyes added. Eat Just is currently working with the FDA to establish a regulatory framework to market cultured chicken in the US.
The EU has recognized cultured meat as a method for achieving food sustainability targets going forward. However, the EU regulatory process for novel foods can take a few years. Additionally, there is likely to be some resistance from some corners. For example, France’s Minister of Agriculture recently shared his opposition to ‘artificial meat’ following the approval of Eat Just’s cultured meat.
“An early commercialization without consumer trust and acceptance of cultured products could backlash and generate more opposition,” warned Albrecht Wolfmeyer, International and National Head of the food startup incubator ProVeg. “Transparency and clear communication on the production process will be crucial to gain consumer trust.”
“It’s a foregone conclusion, in my view, that regulatory approval will be granted, and I don’t think it will take so long that it will delay the technology,” added Cooney. “The companies in the space are still working to bring down the cost and have some ways to go there.”
Cultured meat is only one of the approaches used to replace traditional meat. Plant-based alternatives to animal products have already established themselves in the market, but they cannot fill all purposes. “There’s probably a significant portion of consumers that are not interested in plant-based meat but would happily switch to real animal meat grown via cultivation instead of from live animals,” Cooney noted. “It’s quite valuable to have both of these product sets.”
There are also companies around the world developing cultured fish steaks and pet food, which are harder to replace with plant-based technology.
One example is the Paris-based Gourmey. The company is developing an alternative to the controversial foie gras, which is produced by force-feeding ducks and geese.
“We believe cultured meat can shape a new culinary tradition made of rich and savory gastronomic delights,” Nicolas Morin-Forest, CEO and co-founder of Gourmey, told me. “We are building a versatile platform around duck stem cells, which will have infinite applications. As our cells can specialize into any cell type, we will be able to create a vast array of products, from foie gras to more structured cuts of meat such as duck magret.”
The alternative meat sector is attracting significant investments globally and may look even more promising after Singapore’s approval. Maastricht-based cultured meat developer Mosa Meat recently raised €62M, making it the biggest cultured meat funding round in Europe.
Cultured meat is finding its way to the market, and there is big consumer and investment interest. Companies are keen to stoke this growing hype, such as the India-based Clear Meat, which recently claimed its lab-grown chicken matches the market price of processed chicken in India.
Despite the enthusiasm, there are several challenges with cultured meat. One is that cell cultures often grow best when using serum from calf blood as a medium, which is expensive and requires animal slaughter. While many startups have found workarounds to this issue, such as using a plant-based medium, the trick will be implementing them on an industrial scale.
As the technology matures, cultured meat will not limit itself to replacing traditional meat, but will also bring novel products that can’t be grown by traditional agriculture, such as personalized foods tailored to the needs of a particular person or group. If the success of vegan food is an indicator, the next few years will see a vast expansion of cultured meat.
“Most consumers are already onboard because they understand the benefits of this production method,” Morin-Forest said. “Cultured meat is not for 2050, it is a very concrete solution to tackle today’s environmental and sanitary challenges.”
Images from Elena Resko and Eat Just