Singapore approves lab-grown chicken nuggets

Wednesday, 09 December, 2020

Singapore approves lab-grown chicken nuggets

Singapore has now approved cultured meat for commercial sale with its food agency, giving San Francisco-based start-up Eat Just the go-ahead to produce lab-grown chicken nuggets.

Cultured meat, otherwise known as cultivated meat or clean meat, involves the use of cultured animal cells to create realistic meat-like food products, without requiring the slaughter of animals. Proponents of cultured meat believe it could help overcome the ethical and environmental issues of animal agriculture, while still allowing consumers to enjoy eating meat.

However, the industry has faced several challenges that have prevented the release of a commercial product. These include high production costs, difficulty in scaling up production, and securing regulatory approval. Before this announcement from Singapore, it is claimed that no regulatory regime in the world had approved cultured meat, with the approval process in the EU and US set to take years.

Approval in Singapore is therefore seen as a major step forward for the cultured meat industry. The safety testing carried out in the approval process is likely to be useful for approval in other regimes and a successful commercial launch in the country may help convince regulators that cultured meat is safe.

As a small nation with little arable land that imports 90% of its food, Singapore has made local food production a priority. In 2019, the Singaporean government set up the “30 by 30” goal, aiming to make the country 30% self-sufficient by 2030 by taking advantage of new food production technologies, such as vertical farming and aquaculture. The Singaporean government has been vocally supportive of cultured meat, having spoken at the Good Food Conference 2019 on its ambitions to bring cultured meat to the country. It also recently pledged to invest up to S$144 million (AU$144 million) to the Singapore Food Story R&D program, which focuses on urban agriculture, microbial protein production and cultured meat.

Eat Just (formerly Hampton Creek and JUST) claimed that it had made partnerships with local manufacturers in the country to produce cultured chicken cells and formulate the final product, which will initially be sold in restaurants. The company will begin by producing cultured chicken nuggets but will also apply for a permit to sell fillets.

The cells used in Eat Just’s cultured chicken products will be grown in 1200 L bioreactors and combined with plant-based ingredients. The cells used come from a cell bank established from a biopsy of a live chicken, and so do not require animal slaughter. The nutrient supplied to the cells comes from plant-based resources.

However, the growth medium for the production line includes foetal bovine serum, which is extracted from cattle foetuses, generally in slaughterhouses. This is problematic to the ethos of why culture meat is produced as it aims to move away from animal slaughter.

Besides the ethical irregularities, foetal bovine serum is also very expensive and produced in comparatively small quantities. Eat Just claims that a plant-derived serum will be used in the next production line; however, it wasn’t available when the Singapore approval process began two years ago.

The need for serum alternatives is just one of the challenges that still remain for Eat Just and the rest of the cultured meat industry. Although serum alternatives exist and are widely available, the growth medium is still very expensive and a major contributor to production costs. Additionally, the 1200 L bioreactors used by the company may still be too small for large-scale production and could contribute to high capital costs per kilo of cultured meat. Development of large-scale bioreactors is a key challenge for the industry — a commercially viable cultured meat product may require bioreactors dozens of times larger than what currently exists for mammalian cell culture.

In 2019, Eat Just described production costs of $50 per chicken nugget. Although prices are now likely to be lower, the company’s cultured chicken will still probably be a premium product for the first few years.

For a more in-depth discussion of the technical and commercial challenges facing the cultured meat industry and how a company in the industry can achieve success, see the recent IDTechEx report Plant-based and cultured meat 2020-2030. The report outlines the science and technology behind cultured meat and explores the regulatory and market factors that will shape the industry for years to come, as well as providing a 10-year market forecast for the industry.

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