Singapore regulators in December approved in vitro cultured chicken, giving the world’s lab-developed meat industry its official commercial start. The company behind the poultry product, Eat Just, has since sold hundreds of servings of the poultry to 1880, a club in Singapore, and plans to expand to other restaurants on the island nation this year.
The Singapore Food Agency’s decision marks the world’s first commercial approval of cultured, or cell-based, meat. “It’s really exciting,” says Elizabeth Derbes, associate director of regulatory affairs at the Good Food Institute (GFI), an industry organization that supports meat alternatives. “It’s an incredibly auspicious sign that these products are not just technologically feasible at the bench research stage, but feasible as a scaled product.”
Cultured meats are grown in bioreactors and offer an alternative to raising and slaughtering live animals. The process starts with a small number of cells sourced from donor animals or cell banks. Researchers then generate cell lines that are, hopefully, immortalized. The cells proliferate in a growth medium that typically consists of amino acids, sugars, fats, salts, pH buffers and signaling molecules to encourage cells to proliferate.
One of the biggest technical challenges has been to scale up production in an economically viable way. “When I started the company, that was probably my biggest technical blind spot,” says Josh Tetrick, co-founder and CEO of Eat Just in San Francisco. “I thought: If you could figure out a way to do something in a lab environment, it [wouldn’t be] much of a reach to do it in a much larger commercial environment. That was very wrong. The physics of doing something in a larger environment changes how these elements are interacting.”
Eat Just’s 1,000-liter facility will crank out thousands of pounds of product in 2021, Tetrick says. But the company will need to increase that capacity to “north of 50,000 liters” to make a profit, which Tetrick estimates will take another three to six years. For now, Eat Just takes a loss on the product, pricing it on par with organic chicken.
Eat Just also seeks to tackle another industry-wide challenge: finding a scaffold that can give a texture similar to that of meat. At the moment, the company’s cultured chicken comes out like minced meat. New approaches are needed to approximate the texture and taste experience of a chicken breast or a fat-marbled steak. One of these is to adhere cells to a substrate or scaffold that is either edible or removed before serving. Tetrick says scaffolding will come later. “We look at [scaffolding] as more of a phase two or three,” he says.
The company forms the chicken into nuggets and markets them as “chicken bites” under the brand name “GOOD Meat.” About 70 percent of each chicken bite consists of cultured cells. Proprietary plant proteins comprise the rest, providing structure, breading and spices. It tastes just like chicken, Tetrick reports—not better, not worse, just chicken.
Concocting growth media with affordable ingredients often stumps cultured meat developers too. Eat Just uses growth media that include a small amount of fetal bovine serum—from the blood of an unborn calf—which is expensive and antithetical to the mission of Eat Just and many cultured meat companies. Tetrick says his company recently found an alternative to animal serum, but must get regulatory approval for the change.
In approving the chicken, the Singapore Food Agency asked Eat Just for a breakdown of each step of its process. That included a compositional analysis of the media, a description of the manufacturing process in the bioreactor, a step-by-step analysis of how the cultured cells are converted to finished product, the nutritional composition of the final product, and a pathogen analysis. “It was just a really clear-eyed, straightforward, is-this-safe-or-not analysis,” says Tetrick.
Eat Just chose Singapore for its first product because the regulatory process was straightforward and because Singapore is a global hub with strong intellectual property rights. “If you’re introducing a new kind of product, it’s good to have that melting pot in a single place,” Tetrick says. The regulatory process took about two years.
Eat Just is one of at least 80 companies working in the cultured meat and seafood sector globally. Nearly half of those companies were founded in the past two years, according to data gathered by GFI. “Five years ago, this was a tiny industry,” says Derbes. “The number of companies that are active in this space has really exploded.”
About a third of these companies specialize in one piece of the technical process, such as optimizing culture media, developing scaffolds, building bioreactors, or computer modeling. Matrix Meats, for example, develops nanofiber scaffolds. Newcastle, UK-based CellulaREvolution makes bioreactors for continuous cell culture. Aleph Farms in Rehovot, Israel said in February that it had used three-dimensional bioprinting to produce a rib-eye steak.
The upswell in commercial interest follows a confluence of technical advances in cell culture, data-rich insights into cell metabolism and signaling, and the success of serum-free media, says Liz Specht, director of science and technology at GFI. And when two companies—Memphis Meats and Mosa Meat—each raised meaningful series A funding in 2017 and 2018, respectively, “that really opened the floodgate” for new startups, she says.
Last year Memphis Meats announced that it had raised another $186 million. The Berkeley, California-based company is building a pilot plant expected to be operational by the end of 2021, according to Eric Schulze, VP of product and regulation at the company. Schulze would not disclose the capacity of the plant, but noted: “Many companies have had the capacity to supply a single restaurant for a while. The goal is to get beyond that in terms of scale.” Mosa Meat, in Maastricht, the Netherlands, followed in December, raising another $75 million and announcing plans to build an “industrial-sized” production line.
With this much interest from startups and investors, regulators are bound to see several applications for approval in 2021. Many regions, including the European Union, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Israel, have novel food regulation already on the books that will likely cover cultured meat, says Derbes.
Since October, Tel Aviv-based SuperMeat has been serving free meals from its factory-side restaurant, The Chicken—a way to get its lab-grown chicken out to the public before an official green light from regulators. In Japan, it may already be possible to sell cultivated meat, depending on how one interprets existing laws, but Japanese authorities are considering developing a regulatory framework, according to the GFI.
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) will split jurisdiction over cultured meat, according to a 2019 announcement from the agencies. The FDA will oversee safety through the ‘harvest’ phase of production, and the USDA will oversee further processing and labeling of cultivated meat and poultry.
“The data that’s being asked for by the FDA are the same information that we use for any cultured or fermented food product right now,” says Schulze at Memphis Meats, who is a former novel foods regulator for the FDA. This includes oversight of cell collection and banking; an evaluation of the ingredients that go into the product, such as the components of the media; an evaluation of the finished product; a nutritional analysis; and analysis of any hazards that may be present in the production process, he says.
But although there is clarity on jurisdiction of US regulators, there’s still “a lot to be fleshed out,” says Tetrick. His company has been in conversation with the FDA for about the same amount of time it has been working with Singapore, he says.
Schulze, however, says the FDA’s rules are sufficient. “The pathway is established for these products, and it’s now incumbent upon the industry and the regulators to work together to affirm the safety of their products using risk-based methods,” he says.
As the cultured meat industry pushes forward, some researchers are also trying to figure out whether the effort will amount to any good for the environment. To that end, the US National Science Foundation awarded in September $3.5 million to a consortium at the University of California, Davis. The group will analyze the environmental piece and try to address the industry’s main technical challenges. “I don’t think there’s enough information out there yet to really say for sure that yes, this is clear-cut—a more sustainable way of producing meat,” says David Block, a chemical engineer at Davis who is leading the effort. “But it seems that way on the surface.”
GFI recently announced the results of an environmental analysis comparing beef, pork and chicken made conventionally versus in a bioreactor. The results were favorable. For example, the institute found that making cultivated meat with conventional energy contributes 55 percent less to global warming and uses 94 percent less land than raising livestock.
For some people, like Tetrick, eliminating the slaughter of animals is reason enough to press on. “I don’t think we need to kill another [animal] to have dinner with our friends and family,” he says.
This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on March 10 2021.