What's next for the cultured meat industry?

Thursday, 17 June, 2021

What's next for the cultured meat industry?

The global cultured meat market is predicted to grow exponentially in the next few decades as it looks to take on the trillion-dollar traditional meat industry, according to a recent report. However, the disruptive innovation faces significant hurdles to overcome as regulatory and technological challenges begin to mount.

Exponential growth forecasted

Cultured meat, otherwise known as cultivated meat or cell-based meat, is an emerging technology area that uses cultured animal cells to create meat-like food products.

Unlike plant-based meat or other meat analogues, cultured meat is produced from the same cells as conventional meat. It can theoretically provide a replica of the real thing without requiring animal slaughter and at a fraction of the environmental cost.

The sector has raised more than US$600 million in funding since 2015, growing from fewer than five companies to over 50 in the same time frame, according to insights from Cultured Meat 2021-2041: Technologies, Markets, Forecasts.

The report, produced by IDTechEx, forecasts the global cultured meat market will be worth $1.66 billion by 2031 and $11.13 billion by 2041.

According to a recent Market Data Forecast report, that is more than 50 times its current valuation.

Singapore leads the way

The cultured meat industry received a significant boost in December 2020, when the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) approved a “novel food petition” for cultured chicken produced by Eat JUST to be sold in Singapore as an ingredient in nuggets made by the company.

As a city-state with almost no agricultural land, Singapore imports over 90% of its food, making it highly dependent on other countries. To improve the country’s food security, in 2019, the Singaporean government set up the “30 by 30” goal, which aims to produce 30% of the country’s nutritional needs locally by 2030, using technologies including vertical farming and alternative proteins.

“The Singaporean government had previously been vocally supportive of cultured meat, and it is perhaps unsurprising that it was the first place to approve a cultured meat product for commercial sale,” IDTechEx published in the report.

However, Eat JUST’s cultured chicken is still very much an early-stage product. The company still uses foetal bovine serum (FBS) to produce its cultured cells, an expensive ingredient with high batch-to-batch variability derived from slaughterhouses, meaning that production is unlikely to be scalable in its current form and still partially relies on animal slaughter. The product is also a blend of cultured cells and plant-based ingredients, possibly reflecting the high production costs associated with cell-cultured and the difficulty of culturing cells at a large scale.

“Nevertheless, it is a major step forward for the industry, and public, and media reactions have been almost uniformly positive,” the report said.

There are hopes that the approval and commercial release in Singapore will influence other regions, accelerating approval processes worldwide.

Regulatory issues

Of the major markets across the world, the US and EU arguably have the most well-defined regulatory pathways. In the EU, the Novel Food Regulation explicitly mentions foods derived from cell and tissue culture and outlines a path to approval that could take as little as 18 months to complete.

In the US, the road ahead is less clear. However, in 2019 the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a joint agreement for the regulatory pathway for meat products derived from cultured cells, other than cultured fish, which is likely to be regulated solely by the FDA. Although there are unanswered questions in both the EU and US, particularly around labelling requirements, the regulatory bodies are taking cultured meat seriously, and pathways to market are beginning to emerge.

Despite these initial steps, there are challenges with securing regulatory approval in both regions. The EU has historically been resistant to biotechnology innovations in food.

For example, the report said, the regulations around genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are among the world’s most stringent, making it difficult to release GMO-containing products in the region.

Whether or not cultured meat products contain GMOs (and some suggest that it will be difficult to create a commercially viable product without some form of genetic modification), it is perhaps a worrying precedent for companies hoping to release products in the EU.

This is less likely to be an issue in the US, although approval involves interacting with two separate regulatory bodies — the FDA and USDA — which may complicate the process. Each body may have different data requirements and timescales, and the exact roles played by each body are not yet clear. Nevertheless, IDTechEx believes that the US is the more likely of the two regions to see the first approvals of cultured meat.

A challenge common to both the EU and US is the potential resistance from industry lobbyists and labelling restrictions. In both regions, plant-based substitutes for animal products have faced similar challenges.

In 2019, the US state of Missouri passed a law banning the term “burger” from being used in relation to plant-based meat, according to the report.

“In 2017, the European Court of Justice banned vegan food producers from using terms such as ‘oat milk’ and ‘soya yogurt’ on their packaging, reinforcing this in 2021 with a move to ban producers from even using terms or imagery on packaging which refer to or invoke dairy products to avoid misleading consumers.”

There are already signs that cultured meat may face similar resistance — in 2018, the US Cattlemen’s Association filed a petition to the USDA requesting that the term “meat” only apply to tissue taken from a slaughtered animal. Arguments around labelling could significantly delay the release of products in both regions, particularly if they make demands the cultured meat industry finds egregious, such as banning the term “meat”.

Cultured fish

One area that could provide a more straightforward path to market, particularly in the US, is cultured fish. Cultured fish products are likely to be solely regulated by the FDA, and there is much less concerted lobbying effort around the fish industry, meaning that regulatory approval is expected to be streamlined. In October 2020, the FDA issued a request for information on how best to label cultured seafood products.

“Interestingly, as of May, the USDA is yet to issue a similar request for cultured mammalian/avian meat, although it has signalled its intention to,” the report said.

As a major market with significant global influence, regulatory approval in the US would be an important step forwards for the cultured meat industry. It would likely lead to approval in many other regions, as well as a big surge in investment into the industry.

IDTechEx predicts US-based cultured seafood companies, such as BlueNalu, Wildtype and Finless Foods, may be worth watching in the near future.

BlueNalu has carried out demonstrations of whole-muscle cell culture-based yellowtail amberjack. Image credit: BlueNalu

BlueNalu became the first cultured meat producer to release design schematics for a large-scale production facility in 2019. The company aims to produce cultured fish in 2000 L batches by the end of 2021 and 200,000 L batches within the next four years. With US$84.75 million in funding, IDTechEx believes the company is in a good position to become a leader in the early cultured meat industry.

For more information on this report, visit www.IDTechEx.com/CulturedMeat.

Top Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/Firn

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