Singapore officials authorized in vitro produced chicken in December, officially launching the world’s lab-developed meat sector. Eat Just, the firm behind the poultry, has now sold hundreds of plates to 1880, a Singaporean club, and wants to extend to other eateries in the island country this year.
The Singapore Food Agency’s decision is the first time cultured, or cell-based, meat has been approved for commercial use. “It’s quite exciting,” says Elizabeth Derbes, associate director of regulatory relations at the Good Food Institute (GFI), a trade group promoting meat substitutes. “The fact that these goods are not only technologically possible at the bench research stage, but also as a scaled product, is a perfect sign.”
Cultured meat is produced in bioreactors and is a viable alternative to rearing and killing live animals. A modest number of cells from donor animals or cell banks are used to begin the procedure.
Researchers then create cell lines that, presumably, will live forever. The cells multiply in a growth medium that contains amino acids, carbohydrates, lipids, salts, pH buffers, and signaling molecules that induce cell division.
Scaling up manufacturing in an economically feasible manner has been one of the most challenging technological problems. “That was certainly my biggest technological blind spot when I launched the company,” Josh Tetrick said, co-founder, CEO of Eat Just in San Francisco. “I reasoned that if you can find out a method to accomplish something in a lab setting, it shouldn’t be that difficult to do it in a much bigger commercial one. That was completely incorrect. When you do anything in a bigger area, the physics of how these pieces interact changes.”
Tetrick estimates that Eat Just’s 1,000-liter plant will produce hundreds of pounds of goods by 2021. To earn a profit, though, the firm would need to boost production to “north of 50,000 liters,” which Tetrick predicts will take another three to six years. Eat Just is now taking a loss on the product, selling it at the same level as organic chicken.
Eat Just also aims to address another industry-wide issue: developing a structure that can mimic the feel of meat. The company’s cultured chicken currently comes out as minced meat. New ways are required to replicate the texture and flavor of a chicken breast or a fat-marbled steak. One of these methods is to attach cells to a substrate or scaffold that is either edible or removed before feeding. Scaffolding, according to Tetrick, will be added later. “Scaffolding is more of phase two or three for us,” he explains.
Under the brand name “GOOD Meat,” the firm shape the chicken into nuggets and sells them as “chicken bites.” Cultured cells make up around 70% of each chicken mouthful. The rest is made up of proprietary plant proteins that provide structure, breading, and seasonings. Tetrick claims it tastes just like chicken—not better, not worse, just chicken.
Cultured meat makers are often stumped when it comes to concocting growing mediums using low-cost components. Eat Just employs growing media that contains a small quantity of fetal bovine serum—blood from an unborn calf—which is pricey and goes against Eat Just’s and many other cultured meat firms’ objectives. Tetrick claims that his business has lately discovered an alternative to animal serum but must first obtain regulatory permission.
The Singapore Food Agency requested an explanation of each stage of Eat Just’s methodology before certifying the chicken. A nutritional analysis of the end product, a compositional analysis of the medium, the description of a manufacturing process in the bioreactor, a step-by-step examination of how the cultured cells are converted to the completed product, and a pathogen analysis was included. Tetrick explains, “It was simply a pretty clear-eyed, simple, is this safe-or-not study.”
Eat Just picked Singapore as its initial product because the regulatory procedure was simple, and the city-state has substantial intellectual property rights. “It’s helpful to have that melting pot in one spot if you’re presenting a new sort of product,” Tetrick explains. It took around two years for the regulatory procedure to be completed.
Eat Just is one of more than 80 firms worldwide involved in the cultured meat and seafood industry. According to GFI data, over half of those businesses were created during the last two years. “This was a little industry five years ago,” adds Derbes. “The number of businesses operating in this market has skyrocketed.”
About a third of these businesses specialize in one aspect of the technical process, such as culture medium optimization, scaffold development, bioreactor construction, or computer modeling. Nanofiber scaffolds are developed by Matrix Meats, for example. CellulaREvolution, situated in Newcastle, UK, creates bioreactors for continuous cell cultivation. Aleph Farms in Rehovot, Israel, said in February that it had made a rib-eye steak using three-dimensional bioprinting.
According to Liz Specht, head of science and technology at GFI, the surge in commercial interest is due to a combination of technological breakthroughs in cell culture, data-rich insights into cell metabolism and signaling, and the development of the serum-free medium. And, she says, when two companies—Memphis Meats and Mosa Meat—each obtained significant series A investment in 2017 and 2018, it “really opened the floodgate” for other entrepreneurs.
Memphis Meats said last year that it had raised an additional $186 million. According to Eric Schulze, the business’s VP of product and regulatory, the Berkeley, California-based startup is developing a pilot plant that will be operational by the end of 2021. Schulze wouldn’t say how big the factory is, but he did tell, “Many enterprises could serve a single restaurant for a long time.” In terms of magnitude, the aim is to go beyond that.” Mosa Meat, based in Maastricht, the Netherlands, raised another $75 million in December and announced intentions to create an “industrial-scale” production line.
With so much interest from companies and investors, authorities are likely to receive a torrent of applications in 2021. According to Derbes, many regions already have unique food regulations, including the European Union, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Israel.
SuperMeat, located in Tel Aviv, has been offering complimentary meals from its factory-side restaurant, The Chicken, since October, as a strategy to get its lab-grown chicken in front of the public before authorities give it the go-ahead. Depending on how current regulations are interpreted, it may already be permissible to sell grown meat in Japan. Still, the GFI reports that Japanese authorities are exploring building a legal framework.
According to a 2019 statement from the agencies, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would control cultured meat in the United States. The FDA will be in charge of ensuring food safety during the ‘harvest’ phase of production, while the USDA will be in the order of subsequent processing and labeling of produced beef and poultry.
“The data that the FDA is requesting is the same information that we utilize for every cultured or fermented food product right now,” says Schulze, a former FDA novel foods regulator at Memphis Meats. According to him, this involves overseeing cell collection and banking, evaluating the chemicals that go into the product, such as the components of the medium, evaluating the completed product, a nutritional analysis, and analyzing any potential risks in the manufacturing process.
Despite the clarity on US regulators’ jurisdiction, Tetrick thinks there is still “a lot to be filled out.” According to him, his business has been in talks with the FDA for roughly the same period that it has been working with Singapore.
Schulze, on the other hand, believes the FDA’s standards are sufficient. “For these items, the route has been created, and it is now up to the industry and regulators to work together to confirm the safety of their goods using risk-based methods,” he says.
As the cultured meat business expands, some scientists examine whether the endeavor will benefit the environment. The US National Science Foundation-funded a consortium at the University of California, Davis, $3.5 million in September to help with this. The panel will examine the environmental component and attempt to resolve the industry’s most pressing technological issues. “I don’t think there’s enough data out there yet to say for sure that yeah, this is a clear-cut—a more sustainable way of making meat,” says David Block, a chemical engineer at UC Davis who is spearheading the initiative. “On the surface, it appears that way.”
GFI has released the findings of an environmental study comparing traditionally raised beef, pigs, and poultry to those grown in a bioreactor. The outcomes were positive. The institution discovered, for example, that producing grown meat using conventional energy contributes 55% less to global warming and consumes 94% less land than rearing animals.
For other people, like Tetrick, eradicating animal killing is enough of a cause to keep going. He claims, “I don’t believe we need to murder another [animal] to eat supper with our friends and family.”