In 2018, Singaporean writer Vina Jie-Min Prasad was shortlisted for the prestigious Hugo Award for her sci-fi story “A Series of Steaks,” about a counterfeiter who specializes in 3D printing fake meat. Barely two years later, however, science fiction has become reality, with Singapore giving a lab-grown meat product the world’s first stamp of regulatory approval.
In December 2020, Singapore gave the green light to the lab-grown “cultured chicken” product produced by Eat Just, a San Francisco-based company. According to the New York Times, a spokesperson from the Singapore Food Agency said that, to their knowledge, no other country had approved such a product before.[i]
Is lab-grown meat just a fad, or is there deeper business potential here—and how will regulators around the world respond?
Fake meat? Nothing new
“Fake meat” is not a new idea: for thousands of years, people have turned to alternative sources of protein, like tofu, tempeh, and so on. But in recent years, the alternative protein industry has gained a new lease of life. According to UBS’s research, in 2018, the market was just shy of $5 billion, and within the next decade, it is projected to explode to $85 billion.[ii]
Lab-grown meat, though it sounds exotic, is a natural outgrowth of this trend. The basic idea is that, using a tissue sample from the original animal, lab researchers can simply grow a slab of muscle fibers, avoiding the waste and environmental harms that normally come with raising live animals such as water consumption, pollution, and so on.
Cultured meat technology is still being perfected, and is likely years away from being mass-produced. According to Scientific American, a 2013 lab-grown burger patty cost a staggering $300,000—rather higher than the price of a McDonald’s value meal. The patty also didn’t quite live up to the taste test: reportedly, it was too dry, because it didn’t have enough fat.[iii]
But just seven years later, Eat Just’s debut in Singapore suggests just how fast the industry is improving. It previously said that one chicken nugget would cost $50, but now claims “price parity” with “premium chicken.”[iv] If this trend continues, before long, lab-grown meat may be seriously competitive on price with farm-grown meat.
Lab-grown meat: the answer to global warming?
Price aside, there are good reasons to support lab-grown meat. Resource scarcity is one: of all the countries in the world, there is good reason why Singapore was the first to approve this product. Though the island nation currently imports around 90% of its food due to lack of land space, it has recently announced a “30 by 30” goal of fulfilling 30% of its agricultural needs by the year 2030. To achieve this food security goal, it will need to adopt innovative technologies, of which cultured meat is a prime example.[v]
Lab-grown meat also ameliorates longstanding ethical issues in the meat industry. For one, it avoids the need to rear animals for slaughter, making meat more palatable for animal lovers. In addition, lab-grown meat is also helpful in reducing our environmental impact. The meat industry is a major source of global warming, as cows produce lots of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Plus, antibiotic abuse in the industry has produced dangerous antibiotic-resistant disease strains that could cause the next pandemic.
Despite these favorable conditions, lab-grown meat still faces many challenges. Price and taste are key, as mentioned, as well as the question of consumer receptiveness. To safeguard consumer trust, regulators will want to make sure that no harmful additives or pathogens are introduced during the process of culturing meat, and the novelty of these technical procedures means that close monitoring will be needed.
There is also some debate over just how much of an environmental benefit lab-grown meat will really have. Some researchers have suggested that the carbon dioxide produced by lab-grown meat’s manufacturing process could outweigh the reduction of methane from cattle farms and contribute more to global warming in the long run.[vi]
Cultured meat and food safety regulations
Due to their novelty as food products, companies interested in launching lab-grown meat products will need the approval of regulators before placing them on the market. To protect consumer health, regulations in many jurisdictions contain provisions for the safety assessment of novel foods. Whether lab-grown meat can be named “meat” is uncertain, as the definition of “meat” may vary from one country to another. In the interests of ensuring that consumers are properly informed, regulators will likely enforce specific labeling requirements about the characteristics and properties of cultured “meat.”
Moreover, companies themselves have been divided in how to market their product: is it “animal protein” or “artificial meat”?[vii] To help answer such questions, five US-based companies have come together to form a new body, the Alliance for Meat, Poultry, and Seafood Innovation (AMPS Innovation). Among other goals, AMPS Innovation aims to develop common labeling guidelines for cultured meat, working closely with government organizations to do so. The group is resistant to slapping an “imitation” label on cultured meat, a suggestion called for by the bipartisan Enzi-Tester bill in the U.S. Congress, proposed in late 2019.[viii]
Here is a quick snapshot of some of the regulatory frameworks around the world on cultured meat:
- To approve Eat Just’s cultured chicken, in March 2020, the Singapore Food Agency brought together a Novel Food Safety Expert Working Group. This group includes experts in everything from bioinformatics to toxicology, and it appears that they will also review future products. However, cultured meat—like other alternative protein sources—must be appropriately labeled to indicate its true nature.[ix]
- Not everyone agreed with Singapore’s decision, though—on Twitter, France’s agricultural minister responded with a resounding “NON.” However, Agriculture Cellulaire France, a French association, was quick to suggest that this was a personal response of the minister, not a legally binding opinion, and that they still saw a space for cellular agriculture in France.[x]
- Regulatory skepticism may be common elsewhere in the European Union. In 2018, Eat Just tried to hold tasting sessions for lab-grown duck chorizo in the Netherlands. But the Dutch Food Safety Authority (NVWA) took away the samples, saying that the EU had not granted approval. In the EU, the European Food Safety Authority must approve lab-grown meat under its novel food legislation, but the process can take many years.[xi]
- Meanwhile, the U.S. has been considering this issue for some time, but its regulatory stance is still evolving. In 2019, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) teamed up with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to jointly regulate the issue. Broadly speaking, the FDA will handle cell collection and cell bank oversight, while the USDA will handle cell harvest and processing, as well as product labeling.
- Other parties in Asia are also looking to get ahead of the race to introduce Lab-grown meat. In China, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a top political advisory body, called for greater investment and an adequate regulatory framework.[xii] The member in question, Sun Baoguo, argued that cell-based meat is the “most likely solution” to guarantee an environmentally friendly meat supply, and suggested that China could borrow from the U.S.’s own regulatory system.[xiii]
- Hong Kong might be ahead of the mainland on this front: commentators describe its flexible regulatory environment as being especially attractive for cultured meat, as shown by the attempts of Eat Just and other companies to launch products there.[xiv]
- Japan has also made strides in this regard, with its Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries Ministry aiming to develop standards around cultured meat, having already set up a study group in April 2020 to develop a national strategy on alternative protein.[xv]
Where is lab-grown meat-headed?
As the world’s population and the global standard of living both grow, our need for high-quality protein will only continue to increase, putting more strain on the planet and our global ecosystem. That means there will be a growing need for alternative protein, and new and innovative technologies like lab-grown meat will almost certainly be a part of that solution.
But to make sure that lab-grown meat can gain consumer trust, companies must ensure that they gain the backing of regional and national regulators. If your company is interested in expanding into this area, feel free to reach out to RegASK, and our experts will be more than happy to support you.