Guilt-free meat has moved closer to consumer reality after Singapore became the first country to approve a lab-grown product.
The Singapore Food Agency on Wednesday said the chicken made by US start-up Eat Just met its safety standards for use in nuggets, paving the way for a commercial launch in the Asian city-state.
Differing from plant-based meat substitutes, which are made from ingredients such as pea or soyabean protein, “in vitro”, “cell-based” or “cultured” meat is produced from animal cells grown in vats.
Early-stage investors have been attracted to the proposition of real meat without slaughter or environmental damage.
“For the first time, meat from real animals that hasn’t required a single animal to be killed or a single tree to be cut down can be sold,” said Josh Tetrick, Eat Just chief executive.
The cultured protein sector has enjoyed an increase in investment flows this year. Start-ups to have raised funds this year include Memphis Meats of the US, Israel’s Future Meat and Mosa Meat of the Netherlands, co-founded by Professor Mark Post, the scientist who created the first lab-grown burger.
The nascent sector counts investors such as SoftBank, Atomico and Singaporean sovereign wealth fund Temasek, as well as meat producers including Tyson Foods and Cargill.
Various cultivated meat companies have filed for regulatory approval in other countries, and the official nod from Singapore could help speed up those processes, said Bruce Friedrich, executive director of the Good Food Institute, an alternative protein advocacy group.
Singapore has “done the hard work in ways that should be useful to governments around the world”, he said.
As a small island nation that imports about 90 per cent of what it eats, Singapore views agritech investments as key to ensuring food security. The city-state is set next year to launch an agri-food tech hub to develop urban food production systems that can be shared across the region. Temasek this year formed a joint venture with Bayer to develop seeds for vertical farming.
Eat Just said it had formed partnerships with local manufacturers in Singapore to produce cultured chicken cells and formulate its finished product ahead of offering it in restaurants in the near future. It will initially offer nuggets but will also file for a permit to sell fillets.
Chicken has a high environmental impact, according to campaigners. It is the world’s top meat by production after pork, with about 69bn birds slaughtered a year, according to data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. The birds consume large amounts of feed — of which soyabeans is a leading component — and environmental campaigners point to growing chicken consumption as a key factor behind Amazon deforestation.
Investment in the cell-based meat sector has helped lower production costs, one of the biggest barriers to commercialisation. Since the world’s first lab-grown burger costing hundreds of thousands of dollars was introduced in 2013, prices have come down substantially. Eat Just said its nuggets would be equivalent in cost to a premium chicken dish at a restaurant.
However, food executives and experts said several obstacles remain, including scaling up production.
“Current production methods for cultured animal cells still only exist at a small scale and reaching commercial scale will require time and investment into equipment development,” said analysts at research firm IDTechEx.
There is also the “yuck factor” associated with meat grown in a vat, although start-ups said younger consumers are willing to try cell-based meat.
“It is critical for cultivated meat companies to be over-abundantly careful and to go beyond consumer expectations in ensuring the safety of cultivated meat and to make sure consumers are comfortable with their product,” said Mr Friedrich.