The first lab-grown burger was created at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, and was eaten at a press conference in London in 2013. While everyone who tried a bite had a different opinion on the taste and texture of the meat, it is agreed that this could be the start of something big. The technology has advanced since then, and now more than 150 companies around the world are exploring ways to grow the meat.
The main objective of the cultured meat industry is quite simple. To significantly reduce the need to raise animals, feed a growing population and possibly tackle the climate crisis. So why hasn’t it taken the world by storm?
Largely because new products such as cell-cultured meat must be approved by regulatory agencies that have regulations, to ensure that safety standards are met. According to Daan Luining, co-founder and CTO of Dutch farmed meat company Meatable, failure to comply with food laws could have disastrous consequences.
“We take food very seriously because everyone eats. I think that’s the point. So you have to be very careful what you feed your population,” said Luining.
When will farmed beef reach the European market?
But in Europe, this process can take a relatively long time. As the European Union (EU) currently comprises 27 countries, engaging multiple governments to sanction products that impact large populations can, when compared to other regions, take a while. Moreover, Luining explained that in the EU, the road to approval can be a long and drawn-out one that can take 24 months for a product to be evaluated. However, this tends to take longer, as files are often sent back to companies who instruct further testing to be performed, delaying the process by up to five years. And startups like Meatable, founded five years ago, don’t have the luxury of waiting that long. This is why Meatable decided to step foot into the more receptive Singapore market. To get to know the flavors that Singaporeans love, the company has teamed up with plant-based company Love Handle, located in Singapore.
Singapore: hotspot for cultured meat
Singapore was the first country to approve no-slaughter meat in 2020. American company Eat Just is paving the way, though, with the sale of cell-cultured chicken nuggets. Since then, the country has been hailed as the center of the alternative protein industry. Due to rapid urbanization, this island nation has limited agricultural land, which causes more than 90% of its food to be imported. Luining believes that this could be the reason why the country is interested in adopting new food technologies.
After getting the green light from the Singapore Food Agency (SFA), Meatable held its first tasting in the country two months ago. It targets the launch of its products in the market next year.
This product based on cell culture technology is derived from pluripotent cells, which are a type of stem cell that has enormous growth potential. These cells are capable of developing into mature muscle and fat cells within eight days.
“This is unheard of in the field of stem cell biology; turning a pluripotent cell into a mature muscle or fat cell within eight days was unprecedented. It doesn’t exist anywhere in the world. And that was really, for me, an aha moment,” said Luining.
Luining stated that the SFA permit could also be a pathway into other markets, as it allows companies to gather evidence about consumer acceptance. In fact, just two days ago the company announced, together with Dutch food technology company Mosa Meat, that it was working with the Dutch government to sample meat and seafood farmed under the country’s limited conditions. The move makes the Netherlands the first country in the EU to allow pre-approved laboratory food tasting.
US regulations legalize cell-cultured meat
Meanwhile, the US has joined Singapore in legalizing the commercialization of cell culture meat. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) – which along with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the regulatory agency that performs food product approvals – approved California-based Upside Foods and Good Meat (which is owned by Eat Only) to sell their alternative protein products .
In the US, meat and poultry must pass inspection and be properly labeled before being sold commercially, according to the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) and the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA). As per these guidelines, Good Meat facilities and equipment are inspected to ensure a safe and sanitary condition.
Food safety regulations should be critical for every country around the world, according to Jennifer Stojkovic, founder of Vegan Women Summit (VWS) and alternative protein investment company Joyful Ventures.
Stojkovic said: “We want to make sure that people are healthy, that they are not in danger.”
“Cultivated meat has been approved and is considered safe now by two different regulatory agencies. So we don’t expect there will 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 its antibiotic-free meat claims.
Cut-free food: better for the environment?
While cultured meat products must be legalized, many plant-based meat producers do not need to seek approval. This is because unlike farmed meat — which is currently a debut product — plant foods such as soy and pea protein have been licensed for sale, according to Stojkovic. But exceptions like California-based Impossible Foods have had to undergo FDA authorization as they seek to market a new ingredient, plant-based heme. The company extracts DNA from soybeans, which it feeds into genetically engineered yeast that undergoes fermentation to produce heme.
As farmed meat expands access to food, it may reduce world hunger. In addition, slaughter-free methods that do not involve cramming animals onto the farm, may witness a decrease in water use up to 96% and land use up to 99%. As one of the most water-intensive crops in the US is alfalfa, which is used to feed cattle and dairy cattle, Stojkovic believes the need to lower the water footprint may prompt attention to cultured meat products.
However, the industry is not without its critics. A report that has not been peer-reviewed by the University of California, Davis claims that culture media that aid animal cell growth, increase the potential for global warming.
Also, cost is a concern for many people. Because the University of Maastricht cost $330,000 to make its first cell-cultured burger, it initially discouraged people from considering cultured protein as a viable option. But prices have dropped since then, with a burger currently costing $9.80. Still, it’s more expensive than the average supermarket burger. That the pandemic has increased world hunger up to 828 million people are food insecure, according to the World Health Organization, so there is even more reason to ensure affordability.
A global move towards developing alternative proteins
As more companies around the world develop cell-cultured meat and push for their products to be approved, further production cost cuts are to be expected. Countries like Israel are making strides, having set up the world’s first farmed meat facility in 2021. Now, the country’s Steakholder Foods has become the first company to produce 3D-printed fish fillets.
In addition, China’s five-year agricultural plan calls for investment in cultured meat research, such as clean energy that makes use of its renewable resources. And countries like Qatar are also looking to invest in alternative protein technologies, according to Stojkovic.
“In parts of the Middle East… there are formidable challenges to having livestock of any kind, and so many of these countries see farmed meat, plant-based meat and food technology as a way to protect their future food systems. We’ve seen quite a bit of investment coming into the sector from places like Qatar and Saudi Arabia,” Stojkovic said.
Additionally, in areas of the US and Canada where the skies are blanketed in smoke due to ongoing wildfires, climate action is a pressing issue.
“You are now seeing the effects of climate change across North America,” said Stojkovic, who believes that as a climate investor, “the best climate impact you can make” is investing in alternative proteins. “I think cultured meat is one of many technologies that can literally change the way we eat.”
As Meatable aims to enter Singapore soon, Luining stated that dietary preferences are often tied to a person’s identity.
“What you eat is part of your identity,” says Luining. “You have all these subcategories now that people like to express their identity in.”
One of the factors that deters people from supporting the sale of cell-farmed meat is that some people find it “unnatural”. But Luining thought otherwise. He believes that protein alternatives can meet dietary needs without compromising on taste, while being environmentally conscious.
“We want to reframe the conversation; departing from a system that no longer feels natural to us. Industrial farming didn’t feel natural to us at all, and then reframed it into: “Hey, but we’re innovating to create something that still gets the real stuff, but without hurting the animals.” It should become the new norm for society. I think that’s what we want to emphasize.”