Singapore has become the first country to approve cultured meat for commercial sale. The Singapore Food Agency said that the cultured chicken produced by San Francisco-based start-up Eat Just met the safety standards for use in nuggets, opening the door for a commercial launch in the country.

Cultured meat, otherwise known as cultivated meat or clean meat, involves the use of cultured animal cells to create realistic meat-like food products, without requiring the slaughter of animals. Proponents of cultured meat believe it could help overcome the ethical and environmental issues of animal agriculture, while still allowing consumers to enjoy meat. In recent years, investment has poured into the industry, with companies such as Memphis Meats, Shiok Meats and Mosa Meat having completed funding rounds in 2020.

However, the industry has faced several challenges that have prevented the release of a commercial product. These include high production costs, difficulty in scaling up production and securing regulatory approval. Before the announcement by the Singapore Food Agency, no regulatory body in the world had approved cultured meat. The approval process in the European Union (EU) and the United States (US) is set to take years.

Approval in Singapore is therefore a major step forward for the cultured meat industry. The safety testing carried out in the approval process is likely to be useful for approval in other countries. A successful commercial launch in the country may help convince regulators around the world that cultured meat is safe.

Making local production a priority

As a small nation with little arable land that imports 90% of its food, Singapore has made local food production a priority. In 2019, the Singaporean government set up the ‘30 by 30’ goal, aiming to make the country 30% self-sufficient by 2030. This is done by taking advantage of new food production technologies, such as vertical farming and aquaculture. Consequently, the Singaporean government has been vocally supportive of cultured meat.

At the Good Food Conference 2019 the country talked about its ambitions to bring cultured meat to the country. It also recently pledged to invest up to S$144 million (US$106 million) to the Singapore Food Story Research and development programme. This programme focuses on urban agriculture, microbial protein production and cultured meat.

Eat Just (formerly Hampton Creek and JUST) claimed that it had made partnerships with local manufacturers in the country to produce cultured chicken cells and formulate the final product. The product will initially be sold in restaurants. The company will begin by producing cultured chicken nuggets but will also apply for a permit to sell fillets.

The cells used in Eat Just’s cultured chicken products will be grown in 1 200ℓ bioreactors and combined with plant-based ingredients. The cells used come from a cell bank established from a biopsy of a live chicken and so do not require animal slaughter. The nutrients supplied to the cells come from plant-based resources.

Issues with cultured meat

However, the growth medium for the production line includes foetal bovine serum, which is extracted from cattle foetuses, generally in slaughterhouses. This is problematic – one of the main aims of cultured meat is to move away from animal slaughter. 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 was not available when the approval process began in Singapore two years ago.

The need for serum alternatives is just one of the challenges that remain for Eat Just and the rest of the cultured meat industry. Although serum alternatives exist and are widely available, the growth medium is still very expensive and a major contributor to production costs.

Additionally, the 1 200ℓ bioreactors used by the company may still be too small for large-scale production. This could contribute to high capital costs per kilogram of cultured meat. 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.

In 2019, Eat Just reported production costs of US$50 per chicken nugget. Although prices are now likely to be lower, the company’s cultured chicken will still probably be a super-premium product for the first few years.

Getting the launch right

A question that remains throughout all of this is whether a quick commercial release is necessarily the best thing for the cultured meat industry. It may be more important to get the commercial release done ‘right’ than done quickly. Consumers are notoriously sceptical of biotechnology in food. 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.

However, this creates a chicken-and-egg situation. Developing 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 being launched. The first few years of commercial release will require a delicate balance from the cultured meat industry. Consumers will be given complete transparency over the production process in order to build trust.

Nevertheless, the regulatory approval of Eat Just’s cultured chicken nuggets in Singapore is a major milestone for the industry. It will likely open the door for more regulatory approvals, both in Singapore and the rest of the world, and could generate a burst of enthusiasm that leads to a major influx of investor funding across the industry. – Press release, IDTechEx