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Cultured meat, produced in bioreactors without the slaughter of an animal, has been approved for sale by a regulatory authority for the first time. The development has been hailed as a landmark moment across the meat industry.
The “chicken bites”, produced by the US company Eat Just, have passed a safety review by the Singapore Food Agency and the approval could open the door to a future when all meat is produced without the killing of livestock, the company said.
Dozens of firms are developing cultivated chicken, beef and pork, with a view to slashing the impact of industrial livestock production on the climate and nature crises, as well as providing cleaner, drug-free and cruelty-free meat. Currently, about 130 million chickens are slaughtered every day for meat, and 4 million pigs. By weight, 60% of the mammals on earth are livestock, 36% are humans and only 4% are wild.
The cells for Eat Just’s product are grown in a 1,200-litre bioreactor and then combined with plant-based ingredients. 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.
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 for the Singapore production line includes foetal bovine serum, which is extracted from foetal blood, but this is largely removed before consumption. A plant-based serum would be used in the next production line, the company said, but was not available when the Singapore approval process began two years ago.
A series of scientific studies have shown that people in rich nations eat more meat than is healthy for them or the planet. Research shows cutting meat consumption is vital in tackling the climate crisis and some scientists say this is the best single environmental action a person can take.
The companies developing lab-grown meat believe this is the product most likely to wean committed meat-eaters off traditional sources. Vegan diets are viewed as unappealing by some, and plant-based meat replacements are not always regarded as replicating the texture and flavour of conventional meat. Meat cultivated in bioreactors also avoids the issues of bacterial contamination from animal waste and the overuse of antibiotics and hormones in animals.
The small scale of current cultured meat production requires a relatively high use of energy and therefore carbon emissions. But once scaled up its manufacturers say it will produce much lower emissions and use far less water and land than conventional meat.
Josh Tetrick, of Eat Just, 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.”
But he said major challenges remained, with the reaction of consumers to cultured meat perhaps being the most significant: “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 the cultured chicken was nutritionally the same as conventional meat.
Other challenges included getting regulatory approval in other nations and increasing production. “If we want to serve the entire country of Singapore, and eventually bring it to elsewhere in the world, we need to move to 10,000-litre or 50,000-litre-plus bioreactors,” Tetrick said.
Eat Just already has experience in selling non-animal products, such as its plant-based egg and vegan mayonnaise, to consumers. Another company, Supermeat.com in Israel, has just begun free public tastings involving a “crispy cultured chicken”.
Industry experts said other companies, including Memphis Meats, Mosa Meat and Aleph Farms, might do well in future as they were working on textured products such as steaks and were able to produce significant amounts of lab-grown meat from the start. Tyson and Cargill, two of the world’s biggest conventional meat companies, now have a stake in Memphis Meats.
A recent report form the global consultancy AT Kearney predicted that most meat in 2040 would not come from dead animals. The firm’s Carsten Gerhardt said: “Approval in an innovation hotspot like Singapore already in 2020 could fast-forward market entry in other developed nations. In the long run we are convinced that cultured meat will address the health and environmental impact issues that traditional meat has when produced in a highly industrialised way.”
Gerhardt said he expected cultured meat would replace cuts of traditional meat, but that plant-based products, which were less expensive, were more likely to replace burgers and sausages.
“The [Eat Just approval] is a very big deal for the future of meat production globally,” said Bruce Friedrich, at the non-profit Good Food Institute in the US. “A new space race for the future of food is under way.” He said cultivated meat was unlikely to become mainstream for some years, until it matched the cost of conventional meat.
Hsin Huang, the secretary general of the International Meat Secretariat, which represents the global meat and livestock industry, agreed the cultured meat approval was a significant moment.
“It seems certain that similar products from other companies will follow,” he said. “There has been so much hype on cell-cultured meat that the anticipated first steps to mass sales is a significant moment.”
“We believe the market potential for cultured meat is vast, as consumers in general continue to show great enthusiasm for the taste and nutritional benefits of animal products. Of course, our view is that real animal products will better meet these needs, but healthy competition is welcome.”
He added that livestock are currently essential to the livelihoods of an estimated one billion poor people globally. He said the IMS believed strongly in consumer choice, with appropriate labelling and regulation.
• This article was amended on 2 December 2020 to make clear that a percentage breakdown given for mammals on Earth is by weight.