In the last few months, interest in cultured meat has taken off. Cultured meat, also known as cell-based meat, heralds a potential breakthrough for food sustainability. Until recently, this novel food was a technological aspiration rather than a reality. But now, cultured chicken nuggets have been approved for the first time in Singapore, raising the question: When will other countries take their first bite?
What Is Cultured Meat?
Cultured meat is often associated with plant-based meats and fermented proteins because of its low environmental impact. But there’s a fundamental difference: Cultured meats are made from real animal proteins rather than animal alternatives.
Animal cells like chicken cells are grown (i.e. cultured) in a bioreactor and assembled into food like chicken nuggets. This technology could offer a “best of both worlds” option: the same taste and texture of animal meat without the greenhouse gas emissions or animal welfare concerns of industrial livestock.
It may be hard for some to adjust to the idea that it’s possible—and safe—to eat chicken that never hatched from an egg. But for Josh Tetrick, co-founder and CEO of Eat Just, the notion that killing animals is the only way to get burgers and drumsticks is severely outdated. “Kids are being born who are not going to grow up with the kinds of assumptions that we all have about what we think meat is,” says Tetrick. If successful, cultured meat could reshape millennia-old presumptions of where meat comes from.
Last November, Eat Just became the first company in the world approved to sell cultured meat to consumers in Singapore. It may come as a surprise that an American company would launch the global debut of cultured meat in one of the world’s smallest countries. But for those following the process closely, Singapore has always been in the running to be first.
Why Singapore Became A Launching Pad
Singapore is known as a science-friendly nation committed to evidence-based policy decisions. As an island nation, Singapore is also motivated to reduce its high reliance on imported food. The country’s 30 by 30 initiative aims to produce 30% of the population’s food needs in-country by 2030.
“I think cellular agriculture is appealing for Singapore as a potential way to diversify their food sources. They’ve been very focused on cultivated meat and seafood for a while,” says Elizabeth Derbes, the Associate Director of Regulatory Affairs at the non-profit Good Food Institute. “We’ve been watching Singapore and thinking it was possible they would be first.”
Singapore’s science-forward attitude is what originally attracted Eat Just to apply to the country for approval. It took several years to get the green light but the question of “who will be first?” has finally been answered. So who will be next?
US Agencies Are Pushing Forward
According to Derbes, the most likely regions are the United States and the European Union. But it’s a bit unclear how much progress either region has made. In the US, both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) are involved in determining and enforcing food regulations. But, to date, neither agency has issued frameworks for cultured meat.
To get approval, cultured meat companies need a detailed regulatory structure to apply into, like what Eat Just applied to in Singapore. Tetrick says he has suggested adopting aspects of Singapore’s framework to the USDA and FDA. But, so far, US agencies have only released high-level guidelines. However, this doesn’t mean the process has stalled out.
“I’m just not sure we can conclude that the [agencies] are not moving forward just because we’re not seeing it. They are meeting with companies, though the details of those conversations are not public,” says Derbes, adding that much of what companies share with regulators is proprietary.
There are signs that the FDA at least is pushing forward. “The FDA has a request out for information right now on cultivated seafood labeling. That kind of focused attention on labeling suggests that they think they’re going to have something that needs to be labeled in the not too distant future,” says Derbes.
Labeling is an important part of food acceptance, not just legally but also culturally. If US regulators are close to releasing a framework for cultured meats, will US consumers be ready to accept them?
Is the US Culturally Ready For Cultured Meat?
A key difference between Singapore and the United States is that Singapore doesn’t have a powerful livestock industry. As a densely packed island of six million people, Singapore lacks the real-estate for cattle. But in the US, livestock lobbying, and politics in general, have a much stronger influence.
“The reality of the US—and there’s no getting around it—is that politics are more involved. And often, that ends up being a negative thing,” says Tetrick. “But if the science is right and the evidence is on your side, you don’t need politics. You just need a rational, thoughtful, approach and [the regulatory process] will work itself out.”
A dominant US livestock industry also creates cultural ties to the raising and slaughtering of animals for food. Tetrick sees Gen Zers and Millennials as the natural heirs to cultured meat technology. It’s older generations—who are typically less focused on the environmental or health consequences of animal farming—that tend to be more off-put by the idea. “I think that the best way to deal with folks like me who grew up in an industrialized meat-eating culture [like] Birmingham, Alabama, is to give us something a lot better,” says Tetrick. Cultured meat is only strange until it tastes as good or better than animal meat.
If cell-based foods can meet the bar for flavor, consumers will likely come to accept them if they become a part of daily life. The more consumers see cultured meats in restaurants and grocery stores, the less strange the idea will become. But cell-based meats are still a long way from being household staples. For entrepreneurs, staying focused on the long game is key.
For Entrepreneurs, Know What To Worry About
From Tetrick’s perspective, holding one’s breath waiting for countries to approve cultured meat is a waste of energy. “You can only control what you can control. If you allow yourself to get bogged down with [which agency] is going to say yes first, you’re never going to do anything,” says Tetrick.
Tetrick also explains that regulators can vary significantly from country to country. For cultured meat startups, navigating the regulatory landscape alone can be both confusing and ill-advised. “Find people who have navigated regulatory environments and have them as a part of your core group. [They will] tell you the truth about where you are, whether that is good truth or bad truth,” says Tetrick.
Derbes also sees a hyper-focus on regulatory issues as a potential trap for new companies. “I think the big questions for the companies are the scientific questions. [Companies] eventually all get interested in regulatory approvals, but they have to have a product before they can worry about that,” says Derbes.
The scientific foundation of cell-based meat is paramount to success. But the cultured meat industry is still so new, participating in the space demands significant upfront capital.
Be Prepared To Bet Big
Launching a cultured meat company is not for the faint of heart. Currently, making cell-based meat is significantly more expensive than making plant-based. Tetrick is upfront about the price tag: “If you want to do the full thing, from cell-line development to manufacturing the product, you better be thinking about raising a minimum of half a billion dollars. That’s just kind of table stakes,” says Tetrick.
But the cutting edge of food technology is as high-reward as it is high-risk. “If you want to have the most peaceful life, [cultured meat] probably isn’t the best choice. If you want an exhilarating and fun and really hard existence, then okay, we’ll sign you up,” says Tetrick.
Right now, Eat Just’s chicken nuggets sell at a loss. But as the company increases its capacity and other companies receive regulatory approval, production costs across the industry are expected to fall. Eventually, Tetrick hopes some companies will develop specializations like scaffolding or cell development, increasing productivity through collaboration.
The Future of Meat Is Still Changing
So what comes next for cultured meat? Spoiler alert, it won’t be whole roast chickens. Tetrick describes cultured meat as still in the “appetizer round” of the industry’s development. Eat Just’s chicken nuggets are a ground protein, like burgers and sausages. Structured meats like chicken breasts and steaks still pose a significant scientific challenge—Tetrick estimates another three-to-five years before structured meats become available.
Eat Just is still the only company in the world approved to sell cultured meat. But they might not be alone much longer. The world’s first cell-based ribeye steak was just 3D bioprinted by Aleph Farms. No matter where cultured meat is approved next, the future of meat has shifted. Killing animals for food is no longer the rule, and one day, it might become the exception.
Want to learn more about how synthetic biology is reshaping the future of food? Join us on March 3rd and hear from Dean Powel at the Good Food Institute and Josh Tetrick, our keynote speaker. Get your ticket today!7