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How safe is cell-cultivated meat?

Article-How safe is cell-cultivated meat?

© AdobeStock/dusanpetkovic1 Determining the safety of cell-cultivated meat
Almost all food safety hazards associated with cell-based foods have also been identified in conventionally produced foods, according to a recent Food and Agriculture (FAO) report – but the biggest challenge could be reassuring the public.

As sustainability, animal welfare, and nutritional values all come under scrutiny, cultivated meat products are growing in appeal to conscious consumers. However, questions over the safety of cultivated foods remain.

In 2022, the FAO released a document detailing the food safety aspects of cell-based food. As part of its food safety evaluation, the consultation looked at all possible hazards, identifying that almost all have been well-known hazards in many conventionally produced food products.

Therefore, the important element in food safety is to maintain transparency in understanding the exact production processes so that if any new possible concerns emerge, hazard identification and subsequent food safety assessment can be conducted in a timely manner,” said a spokesperson from the FAO food safety team.

Global demands and developments have fuelled cultivated food safety discussions. Professor William Chen, director of the food science and technology programme at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) highlighted that this stems from the need to develop “game-changing urban solutions”, including cultivated foods to deal with “increasingly unfavourable environmental conditions for traditional food production”.

Antibiotic use in livestock and aquaculture production is driving resistance to medically important antibiotics, representing a global public health crisis. Producing meat through alternative methods, such as cultivating it from cells, allows the industry to decouple antibiotics from meat and improve food safety and human health.

The FAO food safety team anticipates that more global food safety authorities will be aware of the cultivated meat segment following Eat Just’s introduction of its cultivated chicken protein in 2020 under its cultivated meat division, Good Meat. In 2023, the brand will unveil its cultivated meat facility in Asia.

Legal considerations and compliance are also set to play a significant role in growing the alternatives segment. “Policymakers will need to evaluate whether existing food safety regulations and policies are adequate or whether any new policy measures are necessary to regulate this technology suitably,” said the FAO food safety team. “Regulators will have the opportunity to answer questions from consumers, thus, they will work on effective communication strategies.

Scaling up manufacturing to meet demand

Scaling up manufacturing to the size needed to drive down costs and harmonising regulatory standards at an international level is the biggest challenge the cultivated foods industry is grappling with,” Gosker says.

National governments can play a “critical” role in resolving these hurdles by investing more deeply in alternative protein research and development (R&D) and manufacturing infrastructure. The segment also relies on their support to work collaboratively to align international novel food regulatory frameworks.

One of the most important areas that has been lacking, and that we hope to see addressed over the coming years, is a focus on scientific upskilling and technical training platforms aimed at widening the cellular agriculture talent pipeline,” said Gosker.

In Singapore alone, GFI APAC has projected that more than 500 technical workers will be required to scale up the city-state’s fermentation and cultivated meat sectors over the next five years, including bioreactor operators, data scientists and food safety experts.

The challenge is that ‘future food’ training modules only currently exist at two universities in all of Southeast Asia,” Gosker said. “That is a problem that countries will need to address quickly so that worthwhile investments in cultivated meat manufacturing infrastructure aren’t stymied due to staffing shortages.

Assistive platforms and tools

The segment is welcoming technologies designed to inform consumers and increase the opportunities available to cellular agriculture producers.

New platforms like the Cultivated Meat Modeling Consortium and the Tufts University Center for Cellular Agriculture (TUCCA) have emerged as key academia-industry partnerships and resources as the cultivated foods sector scales up. Similar entities have launched on the regulatory side, such as Singapore’s Future Ready Food Safety Hub (FRESH), which works with cultivated food companies to consolidate the regulatory approval application process.

Cultivating the alternatives segment is vital as it seeks to move from niche to mainstream audiences. “Cellular agriculture should be seen as a new option, instead of a replacement for livestock farming, for greater food security and brings hope for the future development of other food solutions,” said Chen.

© AdobeStock/FramestockDetermining the safety of cell-cultivated meat

Cultivated versus traditional counterparts: Cost and sustainable impact

Cultivated meat producers have identified the ability to source components for cell culture media — a mixture of a carbon-based energy sources, amino acids, salts, vitamins, water and other components to support cell viability and vitality — from food- or feed-grade ingredients. Sourcing from these ingredients rather than pharmaceutical-grade components, which have largely been used until now, has emerged as a potentially significant cost reducer, said Mirte Gosker, managing director of the Good Food Institute (GFI) APAC, Asia’s leading alternative protein think tank.

Some cultivated meat companies have partnered with animal feed manufacturers to obtain these components at feed grade, allowing them to access mature supply chains and lower costs.

From a sustainability perspective, independent third-party assessments of the sector’s projected climate impacts have confirmed the potential of cultivated meat to provide environmental gains and reduce the meat industry’s ecological footprint.

Its production system is climate resilient, although the operation cost needs to be lower to be more appealing to consumers,” said Chen.