Food law: regulatory frameworks play catch up on cultivated meat products

Margaret TaylorTuesday 7 March 2023

Cultivated meat is, according to Philip Lymbery, Chief Executive of animal welfare charity Compassion in World Farming, ‘humanity’s version of something that nature has already given us’. Noting that it’s produced in a bioreactor ‘from stem cells harmlessly drawn from donor animals’, Lymbery says lab-grown meat is therefore a ‘game-changer’ because it replicates nature ‘without the slaughter’.

Jan Holthuis, Member of the IBA Agriculture and Food Section Advisory Board and a partner at Dutch firm Buren, agrees that the science behind the concept has the potential to completely revolutionise the way meat is produced. ‘Scientists take a stem cell and put it into a bioreactor with a soup of ingredients that will cause the multiplication of the cell’, he says. ‘Within a few weeks, from one cell you can have 50 or more grams of meat.’

The benefits from a production-consumption point of view are clear. However, while demand for meat is increasing across the world, the desire to embrace lab-grown varieties varies from region to region. In Singapore, for example, regulatory approval was granted for Eat Just’s cell-cultured chicken product in late 2020, with its chicken nuggets going on sale at the restaurant 1880 soon after. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted Upside Foods’ chicken product pre-market safety approval at the end of last year, paving the way for it to move towards commercialisation.

The assumption is that the whole cultured meat process will eventually help with climate concerns

Jan Holthuis
Member, IBA Agriculture and Food Section Advisory Board

But Adeniji Oni, Membership Officer of the IBA Agriculture and Food Section and Founder of Nigerian firm Niji Oni & Co, says that while there’s growing demand for meat-based protein across Africa, and while, in Nigeria for example, the country’s National Agency for Food & Drug Administration & Control has begun looking at the regulatory framework that might govern lab-grown meats, for now the focus is on maximising traditional agricultural output.

‘There’s increasing demand for this as the average person consumes two pieces of protein with every meal’, he says. ‘In Africa we have not yet reached our potential in terms of organic output. We have smallholder farmers who produce what they can. In Europe, America and Asia operations have been exhausted and that’s why they’re looking to lab-grown proteins. In Africa, we haven’t reached that potential yet.’

For Lymbery, the fact that no animals need to be slaughtered to produce lab-grown meat is one of its main selling points. And, as the methane produced by cows is known to be a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, if the growing demand for meat can be met without having to drastically increase the livestock population, it will be good for the planet too.

‘Today’s animal-based meat industry is worth $1.4tn and continues to grow, which is a big problem because as things stand the greenhouse gas emissions from our appetite for meat alone look set to trigger catastrophic climate change’, he says. ‘Cultivated meat, on the other hand, promises a much lower environmental footprint, reducing the impact on climate, land use and air pollution.’ He adds that the latest predictions suggest cultivated meat could secure ten per cent of the meat market by 2030 and as much as 35 per cent by 2040.

Holthuis agrees that the environmental advantages of cultivated meat are potentially huge, though he warns that, if rolled out on a mass scale, bioreactors will require large amounts of energy to power so their credentials as being environmentally-friendly should not be overstated. ‘The environmental question is interesting’, he says. ‘Animals produce a lot of [carbon dioxide] and need seven kilos of food for one kilo of meat but the demand for meat will double by 2050. That’s a huge increase and we can’t deal with that in the present circumstances.’

Lab meat production will help to replace the enormous cost of producing animals the natural way, he explains. ‘You need to warm a bioreactor up and it needs to be under certain conditions so it still uses energy, but the assumption is that the whole cultured meat process will eventually help with climate concerns’, says Holthuis.

That remains largely moot for now, however. Though the FDA has deemed lab-grown meat safe for human consumption, it’s still some way off finding its way onto American consumers’ plates. And though companies such as Biotech Foods in Spain and Higher Steaks in the UK are working on creating products of their own, the regulatory framework across the EU and the UK needs to catch up if they are going to be brought to market.

As things stand, cell-grown products would have to be authorised as a ‘novel food’ to be sold within the EU, with the same regime currently applying in the UK post-Brexit. It’s not clear how the UK government might legislate for lab-based meats once it has reviewed all EU laws that were ported across on departure from the common market, although in a policy paper published in 2022, the UK government said cultivated meats were a ‘new and exciting area with significant innovation’, which it would want to create a distinct regulatory framework for.

In the meantime, Holthuis says the ‘novel food’ requirement creates a number of hurdles that mean the production of lab-grown meats on a mass scale is still likely some years off. ‘Novel foods are foods that were not widely consumed before 1997 according to this regulation and you have to ask for pre-market authorisation for them’, he explains. ‘That process can take quite a long time. It doesn’t only cover the meat but also the additives and ingredients that are used in the bioreactor – they can leave a residue in the end-product that might not be safe.’

He adds that there are also questions around labelling, with the old definition of meat in law being that it’s part of an animal intended for human consumption. ‘Do we need to adapt the definition here?’, he says. The current definition ‘doesn’t include anything about cultures. That’s a little bit outdated.’

Image credit: Visualmind/AdobeStock.com