SINGAPORE - The world's first cell-cultured meat product - bite-sized chicken by Californian start-up Eat Just - will soon be available at restaurants here, now that Singapore authorities have deemed it safe for consumption.
Cultured meat, which involves making meat products by culturing animal cells instead of by slaughter, is not yet available for sale and consumption anywhere else in the world.
The cultured chicken bites will be manufactured in Singapore, said Eat Just chief executive Josh Tetrick.
"Singapore's regulatory approval of Eat Just's cultured chicken as food... paves the way for the product to be served to consumers in a restaurant setting soon," Mr Tetrick told The Straits Times, although he would not be drawn on a timeline for when the product might be available.
He said that for a start, the chicken bites would probably cost as much as "premium chicken customers would enjoy at a restaurant".
But prices would fall as production is scaled up, he added, noting that costs were already a third of what they were a year ago.
"To achieve our mission, we'll need to be below the cost of conventional chicken, which we expect to happen in the years ahead," he added.
The chicken bites also have the potential to be Halal-certified, said Mr Tetrick, and this is something the company will consider in the future.
Ensuring food safety
The Singapore Food Agency (SFA) said on Wednesday (Dec 2) that it is allowing Eat Just's cultured chicken - which will be labelled to indicate they are cultured meat - to be sold in Singapore, now that its evaluations have determined that it is safe.
Dr Tan Lee Kim, SFA director-general for food administration, said food safety was a principal consideration in production.
"SFA will review the safety assessments of these alternative protein products scientifically and consult experts to safeguard food safety and public health. We will also monitor such new products when they enter the market," she said.
The evaluation process includes considerations of factors such as the product's manufacturing process and toxicity of ingredients, as well as whether the final product meets the standards in food regulation.
The SFA had in November 2019 published on its website a document detailing information that would be required for the safety assessment of such novel foods.
These include cultured meat products, such as the chicken bites by Eat Just, as well as certain types of insect, algae and fungi-based proteins.
The term novel foods refers to products that do not have a history of safe use.
A history of safe use is defined by the SFA as that of substances consumed by a significant human population as part of their diet for at least 20 years without reported adverse health effects.
Singapore's regulatory framework was formed by the SFA in 2019, following consultations with the scientific community and food businesses.
Many plant-based meat products are not categorised as novel foods as they are made of proteins extracted from other commonly consumed plants.
The chicken bites by Eat Just is the first product to pass SFA's evaluation process under the new regulatory framework.
The Straits Times understands that there are a number of other companies looking to bring in alternative proteins into Singapore, although not all products may be available commercially in the near-term.
Ants Innovate, for example, is a local company that aims to create cuts of pork using cell-culture technology. It aims to grow pig-muscle cells using the technology, and then put these cells onto cellular "scaffolding", The Straits Times had earlier reported. This will allow the firm to be able to produce entire cuts of meat, from pork chops to shoulders, instead of just minced meat.
'Like making beer'
Eat Just's Mr Tetrick said people might have the impression that such alternative proteins are made in laboratories.
"The meat we're making is created in large cultivators or bioreactors that, in time, will resemble a beer brewery or similar facility used for production of cultured food products," he explained.
"(Referring to it as) lab-made is a red herring and has an inherently negative connotation. Many of the foods we eat and enjoy every day, including most processed foods, start in a lab setting and are scaled up and commercialised," he added.
Ms Elaine Siu, managing director of The Good Food Institute Asia Pacific, an international non-profit that promotes protein alternatives, noted that cultivating meat in the equivalent of a brewery is safer, cleaner and more efficient than raising animals in farms.
"Rather than growing muscle tissue inside live animals, cultivated meat producers take a few animal cells and use a mixture of nutrients to grow those cells into a piece of meat," she explained.
"As a result, we get pure meat, the production of which doesn't require antibiotics, doesn't require slaughter, and doesn't suffer from fecal E. coli, salmonella, or other contamination," she said.
And modern factory farms are not so natural, Ms Siu noted, adding: "Almost all conventional meat is the product of both artificial insemination and massive doses of growth-promoting drugs."
Case for alternative proteins
But more studies need to be done before the pros and cons of cultured meat can be assessed.
A paper published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Nutrition in February this year (2020) noted that in terms of environmental impact, for instance, there has been no consensus about greenhouse gas emissions of cultivated meat compared with conventional meat.
The paper also said the loss of the livestock sector would have implications on related industries, such as for wool, fibre, and leather, and impact rural populations that depend on livestock for income.
However, it is clear that the need for alternative proteins is mounting in the face of challenges such as feeding a growing global population and climate change. The two are intertwined.
A special report by the United Nations climate science panel had in August 2019 found that deforestation for large-scale agriculture was degrading the life-giving soil that humanity needs to feed and clothe itself, cutting yields and threatening food supplies for millions of people.
The report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a vital guide for governments as climate change risks grow in a world where the population is heading for 10 billion people by mid-century, threatening to place even greater strains on the planet's limited resources.
But the report had also highlighted solutions, including switching to less intensive farming, ecosystem conservation and land restoration, reduced deforestation, cutting food waste and switching to climate-friendly diets.
"New innovations and alternative methods to produce protein-rich food more productively and sustainably are needed," said the SFA.
Alternative protein is considered more sustainable as large volumes can be produced with relatively small amounts of land and labour, in a climate-resilient and sustainable manner, added the agency.
Ms Siu said: "The race to divorce meat production from industrial animal agriculture is underway and nations that follow Singapore's lead will be able to reap the benefits as the entire world shifts to this new and better way of making meat."
Internal auditor Heng Xian Zheng, 30, said price is a key factor in his decision to try the chicken bites.
“I don’t see why there will be a mental barrier to try the cultured chicken, especially if it tastes the same," he pointed out.
"Plenty of our food like flavourings and colouring are already synthetically produced.”