Eat Just receives approval from SFA to produce serum-free cultivated meat

Various cultivated chicken dishes were launched at meat product producer and supplier Huber’s Butchery in Dempsey in January. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Californian start-up Eat Just has received approval from the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) to produce serum-free cultivated meat, a move that would see its laboratory-made chicken produced more cheaply and sustainably.

Eat Just in 2020 received regulatory approval from the SFA for its cultivated chicken nugget using animal serum. Since then, the firm has made several iterations of the product as it worked on improving the texture and meaty quality. Various cultivated chicken dishes were launched at meat product producer and supplier Huber’s Butchery in Dempsey in January 2023.

However, to produce the animal serum needed for cultivated meat, scientists would have to harvest the blood of cow foetuses by slaughtering pregnant cows, a process known to be ethically controversial and expensive.

Known as foetal bovine serum, the concoction contains a mix of proteins which would provide the ideal conditions for animal cells to grow. It was the breakthrough development in cultivated meat efforts.

Professor William Chen, director of Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) food science and technology programme, said that the foetal bovine serum currently costs around US$2,000 (S$2,620) per litre, which drives up the costs of producing cultivated meat immensely.

Therefore, its continued use poses a challenge for the sustainability of the cultivated meat industry, especially as companies attempt to scale up for mass production.

As a result, alternative protein companies have been striving to produce cultivated meat without the use of animal serum.

Ms Mirte Gosker, managing director of the Good Food Institute APAC, noted that removing serum from cultivated meat production can drive down costs and set the stage for the expanded commercialisation of sustainable protein.

With the recent approval from the SFA, Eat Just is now well-poised to produce its serum-free cultivated meat at its production facility, which will have the capacity to make “tens of thousands of pounds of meat”, the company’s co-founder and chief executive Josh Tetrick said in a statement on Jan 18.

The production facility, which will open this year, will house the single-largest bioreactor in the cultivated meat industry to date – a 6,000-litre vessel built in partnership with bioreactor technology leader ABEC, he added.

Prof Chen said that serum-free culture media essentially works by introducing cellular signals, such as insulin, that would allow cultivated meat to grow, thereby achieving the same effect induced by the foetal bovine serum.

However, the long-term effectiveness of serum-free culture media in the cultivated meat industry needs further monitoring, as this would depend on the different meat products that they are used for, he noted.

This could range from seafood and chicken to pork and beef, he said.

Prof Chen said there have been various ongoing efforts to use sustainable plant-based ingredients to replace foetal bovine serum, with scientists from NTU having demonstrated the potential of using fermented soya bean pulp to do so.

Umami Meats’ founder and chief executive Mihir Pershad told The Straits Times that he has seen “significant progress” towards serum-free formulations from many leaders in the cultivated meat and seafood industry, and he is optimistic that this is likely to continue.

“Given the cost and ethical challenges of using animal-derived components, I believe serum-free media formulations will become a requirement for the cultivated industry and will be essential for making cultivated products mainstream worldwide,” he said.

Umami Meats currently uses a plant-based serum to produce its cultivated seafood and exotic fish such as the Japanese eel, or unagi, the humpback grouper, the orange-spotted grouper and the red snapper.

Mr Pershad added that the company is looking to apply for SFA approval for its cultivated seafood within the next year.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.