Cell-cultured meat industry set for another leap forward with new Changi plant

Aleph Farms entered into an agreement with Esco Aster to jointly produce its thin-cut steak for Singapore. PHOTO: ALEPH FARMS
Aleph Farms’ cultivated thin-cut steak in a salad. PHOTO: ALEPH FARMS

SINGAPORE – In efforts to bring more slaughter-free chicken tenders, meatballs and even steaks to diners, a local cell-based meat manufacturer will set up an 80,000 sq ft plant in Changi by 2025.

With ambitions to produce at least 400 tonnes to 500 tonnes of cell-cultured meat a year, the firm, Esco Aster, could be running one of the largest cultivated meat plants in Singapore once the Changi facility – about the size of 1½ football fields – is fully operational.

The Republic has been taking the lead in the cultivated meat sector, being the first in the world to approve the novel food in late 2020, for Californian start-up Eat Just’s cell-based chicken nuggets.

In 2021, Esco Aster had the world’s first licensed commercial facility in Ayer Rajah Crescent to produce cell-cultured meat for Eat Just’s Good Meat division.

A spokesman for Esco Aster said the company is working to get the Changi plant certified by the Singapore Food Agency (SFA).

It now produces small batches of cultivated chicken cells from an 80 sq m space in Ayer Rajah Crescent to help make chicken nuggets, fillets and satay skewers for Good Meat.

As a contract manufacturer, Esco Aster helps to produce cell-based meat and bio-materials for cultivated meat start-ups.

Apart from Good Meat, its clients at Ayer Rajah include Dutch firms Meatable and Mosa Meat, which create pork and beef sausages and patties.

Good Meat’s cell-based chicken is currently served on Thursdays at Huber’s Butchery in Dempsey. The novel food comes as a kebab and in a fried chicken salad.

Good Meat also has an upcoming 30,000 sq ft facility in Bedok Food City which will house a 6,000-litre bioreactor.

The plant is expected to be completed by the first quarter of 2023 and operational by the second half of this year, said Eat Just vice-president and head of global communications and public affairs Andrew Noyes.

A recent analysis by think-tank Good Food Institute APAC showed that investments in cultivated meat firms in the Asia Pacific increased by 96 per cent, from $48 million in 2021 to $95 million in 2022.

Cell-based meat is made by taking cells from a cow or chicken through a biopsy and multiplying the cells into masses of tissue in large vats called bioreactors.

The bioreactor mimics conditions similar to those inside the body of an animal.

While the largest bioreactors at Esco Aster’s Ayer Rajah site have a capacity of 500 litres, the Changi South Street 1 facility will feature 2,000-litre tanks.

An artist’s impression of Esco Aster’s 80,000 sq ft facility at Changi South Street 1. PHOTO: ESCO ASTER

The “bioreactor farm” in the Changi plant will have a total volume of 50,000 litres, said the spokesman.

One of the first clients at the Changi plant will be Israeli firm Aleph Farms, which was the first company to create cultivated steak.

Last Wednesday, Aleph Farms entered into an agreement with Esco Aster to jointly produce its thin-cut steak for Singapore, starting with 10 tonnes to 20 tonnes of cultivated beef a year from 2025.

Aleph Farms chief executive and co-founder Didier Toubia said his firm is seeking approval from SFA to sell its thin-cut steak in Singapore.

The cultivated thin-cut steak being cooked. The steaks will be priced similar to what ultra-premium beef costs in the market. PHOTO: ALEPH FARMS

If the green light comes this year, the plan is to launch the item in some restaurants here.

He added that the thin-cut steaks will initially be priced similar to what ultra-premium beef costs in the market.

Few cultivated meat companies have perfected textured and whole meat cuts such as steak for commercial sale.

Most have been creating mince-based products such as nuggets, sausages and patties.

Aleph Farms’ process starts with taking young stem cells from the fertilised egg of a cow.

Once these cells are multiplied in bioreactors, they will be grown on a plant-based scaffold which serves as a structure for them to organise into shape and mature into muscle and collagen-producing cells, to form the texture of a thin-cut steak.

Mr Toubia said the thin-cut steak can serve as an appetiser or be added to some Singaporean dishes.

He added: “What’s unique about Aleph Farms is that we focus on higher quality beef products. We focus on the nutritional but also the culinary and sensory properties such as taste, flavour and texture. We believe that bringing cultivated beef steaks to the Asia-Pacific and South-east Asia is a good opportunity for driving more acceptance for these types of products.”

Aleph Farms is also perfecting its second cultivated beef product – thicker and marbled steak of any shape – using a technology similar to 3D printing, but with animal cells.

In 2021, the food-tech company showcased a prototype of its cultivated rib-eye steak.

Aleph Farms’ cultivated ribeye steak. PHOTO: ALEPH FARMS

Esco Aster is also working to have its Changi facility halal-certified.

In late 2022, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli visited the Ayer Rajah facility, followed by a visit in January by Singapore Mufti Nazirudin Mohd Nasir, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore’s halal development team and members of Singapore’s fatwa committee. The committee issues religious guidance for Muslims here.

The team and Esco Aster in January exchanged religious and regulatory viewpoints on cultivated meat and cell-based foods, and agreed to collaborate on establishing regulatory frameworks.

Esco Aster founding chief executive Lin Xiangliang said: “Enabling novel foods such as cultivated meat to become mainstream will require biomanufacturers to produce at the highest levels of government regulations, food safety and also to be in compliance with religious standards as well.

“Therefore, we would like to work actively with religious authorities such as Muis to propel the industry forward.”

As for Aleph Farms, Israel’s chief rabbi in January ruled that its cultivated steak is kosher and permissible under Jewish dietary law.

The firm is now aiming to have its novel food products halal-certified and working with Esco Aster on this.

Mr Toubia said Aleph Farms’ process of growing the cow cells and making the steak has not involved other animal-based ingredients for a couple of years now.

Mr Noyes said that Good Meat is also exploring the possibility of having its cultivated chicken halal-certified and has contacted Muis.

Its process of making the chicken is also free of other animal components, he added.

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