• Cell-cultivated chicken nugget
    Cell-cultivated chicken nugget

In a world first, the Singapore Food Agency says a cultivated meat – US-based Eat Just’s cultured chicken nuggets – meets its food safety standards and is safe for human consumption. The industry is calling the decision a game changer.

Cultured mean, also known as cell-based meat, cultivated meat or clean meat, uses cultured animal cells to create realistic meat like food products, without the slaughter of animals.

Alternative protein not-for-profit company The Good Food Institute executive director Bruce Friedrich said Singapore had thrown down the gauntlet. “Cultivated meat will mark an enormous advance in our efforts to create a food supply that is safe, secure, and sustainable, and Singapore is leading the way on this transition.”

Eat Just founder Josh Tetrick said: “I think the approval is one of the most significant milestones in the food industry in the last handful of decades. It’s an open door and it’s up to us and other companies to take that opportunity.

“My hope is this leads to a world in the next handful of years where the majority of meat doesn’t require killing a single animal or tearing down a single tree.”

Founder and chief commercial officer of Australian cultured meat start-up Vow Tim Noakesmith said: “This changes the entire game. Get ready for the newest wave of food. Things will never be the same, in the best way possible.”

Initial availability would be limited, the company said, and the bites would be sold in a restaurant in Singapore. The product would be significantly more expensive than conventional chicken until production was scaled up but Eat Just said it would ultimately be cheaper. In 2019, Eat Just said production costs were $50 per nugget.

Production and reputational challenges

Tetrick acknowledges one of the biggest challenges remains consumer attitudes and reaction to the product. “Is it different? For sure. Our hope is through transparent communication with consumers, what this is and how it compares to conventional meat, we’re able to win. But it’s not a guarantee,” he said.

But public opinion is not the only challenge. Eat Just (the company launched as Hampton Creek in 2011, then Just in 2017 and now Eat Just) started developing a lab-grown meat for chicken nuggets in 2017.

The product is grown in a bioreactor in a fluid of amino acids, sugar and salt. Eat Just nuggets are 70 per cent lab grown meat mixed with mung bean protein and other plant-based ingredients.

While the cells used to start the process came from a cell bank and did not require the slaughter of a chicken because cells can be taken from biopsies of live animals. The nutrients supplied to the growing cells were all from plants.

The growth medium is not so virtuous. The growth medium for production includes foetal bovine serum, extracted from cattle foetuses, which generally come from slaughterhouses.

Research and consultancy firm IdTechEx said: “This is problematic – one of the main aims of cultured meat is to move away from animal slaughter and foetal bovine serum is very expensive and produced in comparatively small quantities. Eat Just claims that a plant-derived serum will be used in the next production line, however it wasn’t available when the Singapore approval process began two years ago.”

While serum alternatives exist, growth medium is very expensive and a major contributor to production costs.

Noakesmith said while serum was the only viable option when Eat Just started its regulatory process two years ago, “we’re all moving away from serum in really big ways across the whole industry so this will soon be a thing of the past”.

IdTechEx raised the question of whether a quick commercial release was a good thing for the industry, saying a commercial release done ‘right’ rather than quickly was preferable.

“Consumers are notoriously skeptical of biotechnology in food and a rushed release that damages consumer trust could set the industry back by years, if not decades. Any safety problems could be catastrophic for the nascent industry.

“Despite huge progress in product quality, the plant-based meat industry has struggled for years to shake off consumer perceptions of inferior quality linked with the earliest plant-based meat products that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s,” it said.

The consequential chicken-and-egg situation will best be managed with a “delicate balance”.

“Developing the large-scale bioreactors and processes to reduce production costs and carrying out extensive consumer outreach campaigns will cost a lot of money. However, without a commercial product it will be hard to get this money, especially if investors begin to lose confidence as time goes by without a commercial product.

“The first few years of commercial release will require a delicate balance from the cultured meat industry, with consumers being given complete transparency over the production process in order to build up trust.”

Meanwhile, the 1200 litre bioreactors may also still be too small for large-scale production and could contribute to high capital costs per kilo of cultured meat, IdTechEx said. “Development of large-scale bioreactors is a key challenge for the industry – a commercially viable cultured meat product may require bioreactors dozens of times larger than what currently exists for mammalian cell culture.”

Global interest on the rise

Singapore has been at the forefront of cultured meat development, largely due to necessity. The country imports 90 per cent of its food but in 2019, set up the 30-by-30 goal of aiming to make the country 30 per cent self-sufficient by 2030 through new food production technologies - like cultured meat, vertical farming and aquaculture.

The Singapore Government has pledged around $145 million to the Singapore Food Story R&D program, which is focused on urban agriculture, microbial protein production and cultured meat.

In June, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and the National People’s Congress (NPC) discussed how cell-based meat development could be a major solution to make China’s food supply more sustainable and crisis-resilient.

Before COVID-19, China’s pork industry was already being decimated by an outbreak of African swine fever. It has since also had a rise of Div1 virus that affects shrimp farms and avian flu. These meat shortages, surging prices, external supply shocks due to the pandemic have also impacted public opinion around food security and livestock farming practices.

CPPCC’s National Committee member and Beijing Technology and Business University president Sun Baoguo said: “Cell-based meat is being viewed as the most likely solution to meat supply via clean and sustainable means.”

The largest Series A funding by a cultivated food start-up was achieved by Japanese food tech company IntegriCulture, at $9.95 million. The round was led by Beyond Next Ventures, NH Foods and AgFunder. It plans to use the funds to push forward its research and its first commercial-scale bioreactor.

And in the US in February, the Alliance for Meat, Poultry & Seafood Innovation (AMPS) was created by five cultivated food tech companies – BlueNalu, Eat Just, Finless Foods, Fork & Goode, and Memphis Meats – to work with government agencies on regulation and labelling policies for cell-based meat.

Friedrich said: “A new space race for the future of food is underway. As nations race to divorce meat production from industrial animal agriculture, countries that delay their investment in this bright food future risk getting left behind.

“The rest of the world should be following Singapore’s lead by funding alternative protein research and working with companies to ensure a rigorous and thorough path to regulatory approval and oversight.”

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