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A meaty debate: traditional vs lab-grown alternatives

26 May 2021. Published by Noonie Holmes, Associate

This January, a record 500,000 people pledged to eat only plant-based food as part of Veganuary, but avoiding meat may not be the only way to eat sustainably.

According to Barclays, the meat-alternatives market could be worth £140 billion by 2029, which is equivalent to 10% of the global meat industry. This includes both plant-based meat, like the mycoprotein vegan sausage roll released by high street bakery Greggs in January 2019, and newer lab-grown meats. These products are meat in the sense that they are made from cultured animal cells, but unlike traditional meat products, they do not require the breeding and slaughter of livestock. Dozens of start-ups are developing cultured beef, pork and chicken in the hope of reducing the impact on the livestock industry and capitalising on the growing appetite for cruelty-free and environmentally friendly protein sources.

Singapore's food regulatory agency became the first in the world to grant regulatory approval to a cultured meat product in December 2020 when it allowed the sale of a cultured meat 'chicken bite' developed by US company Eat Just. These chicken bites, which were initially on sale at a single restaurant in Singapore for S$23 each, are now available for home delivery throughout Singapore.

Regulating the meat market

The Singapore food agency has put a new regulatory framework in place to assess 'novel foods' and ensure they are safe for human consumption. According to the agency, rigorous testing of Eat Just's cultured chicken showed that it met the same standards as poultry meat, and that it had a lower bacteria content than traditional chicken. Companies hoping to sell their products in Singapore are encouraged to consult the regulators early in the product development process so that they can understand the requirements before their product is ready for sale.

In 2019 the Food and Drug Administration in the US announced that it would oversee the production of lab-grown meat products jointly with the Department for Agriculture. The decision to oversee regulation jointly highlights the confusion surrounding cultured meats, as there is significant debate about whether they should be sold as traditional meat equivalents. The UK's Food Standards Agency has said that any lab grown meat will be considered a 'novel food' in line with current regulatory standards.

A green mass market solution?

So far, one of the main obstacles to mass consumption of lab grown meat has been its production cost. For example, in 2013 a Dutch start-up, Mosa Meat, unveiled their cultivated beef hamburger, each of which costs €250,000 to produce. Since then, the company has been working to commercialise and scale up production: scientists at Northwestern University have now developed methods that reduce the cost of the most expensive part of the production by 97%. This means, according to Mosa Meat, that the cost of the company's meat could drop to as little as €9 per burger patty.

It is not yet clear how cultured meats can be produced ethically and at scale. Many vegans and vegetarians cite methane emissions as a reason for cutting meat from their diets, and while growing cultured meat does not produce methane, a recent study by the Oxford Martin School suggested that if cultured meat were to entirely replace traditional meat at current consumption levels, the impact on global warming may actually be worse due to increased carbon dioxide emissions. In addition, at present foetal bovine serum, a by-product of cattle slaughter, is an essential part of cultured meat growth. The use of such ingredients may alarm those seeking cruelty-free lifestyles, but their comparatively low environmental impact may be enough for some flexitarians. Some manufacturers are working towards the development of plant-based cell-culture serums, but they're not there yet.

Appetite for investment

Given the increased popularity of animal-free diets, it is no surprise that large meat companies have been looking to invest in their new competitors. Amongst those investing in cultivated meat technology is Tyson Foods, the biggest producer of meat in the US. The company has invested in multiple lab-grown meat companies including Future Meat and Memphis Meat, both of which hope to release their products in the US by 2022. Whilst the mass-market adoption of cultured-meat products might seem a long way off, investments like these mean we could see them alongside or even instead of traditional meat products sooner than we think.