It is generally acknowledged that the lab-grown meat sector faces at least three key challenges: scalability and cost, consumer acceptance, and regulatory approval.
This last point has had chins wagging since December 2020, when Singapore became the first country to authorise the commercialisation of cultivated meat. Understandably, Europeans want to know when it will be their turn: when will cultivated meat be served on EU plates?
Cell-based meat on sale within 3-5 years?
At ProVeg International’s 2021 New Food Conference, attendees were asked this exact question.
A small proportion (8%) said they don’t believe cultured meat will ever be commercialised in Europe. Eleven percent were significantly more optimistic, believing that lab-grown meat will reach plates within the next two years.
More still (34%) said that lab-grown meat would eventually be commercialised on the bloc, but that it would take five years or longer, and the majority (58%) said cultivated meat would receive approval within three to five years.
On the whole, David Brandes, Managing Director at Belgium-based Peace of Meat, agrees. The biotech has developed a stem-cell based technology that produces animal fats, such as those from cattle, chicken, or geese, in industrial-scale bioreactors.
Peace of Meat hopes to supply cultivated fat – which Brandes says is ‘as juicy’ and ‘as meaty’ as the livestock original – to plant-based meat companies.
Offering up an ‘EU-wide observation’, rather than Peace of Meat’s commercialisation plan, Brandes told the audience that regulatory approval within three to five years is the ‘most probable’ response.
Calculating approval timeframe
“Governments are now waking up to the idea that if we really want to meet the Paris Agreement targets, they need to enable a less intrusive food system,” said the Managing Director. “So the urgency is there.”
As cultivated meat and fat are novel foods, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) requires they be approved as such. In March this year, EFSA published scientific and technical guidance for the preparation and submission of applications for authorisation of novel foods.
Within this latest guidance, EFSA indicates which data are required for submissions, including that related to product identification, manufacturing processes, and compositions of nutritional profiles, Brandes explained.
Once a ‘perfect’ application is submitted, the approval process is expected to take at least 18 months. “Any reiteration will need at least six months on top,” said the Peace of Meat director. “So let’s assume 24-30 months is realistic from the time of submission.”
Continuing his calculations, Brandes said he hopes the first applications will be submitted within the next quarter. Adding on two years on top of that bring his estimation of a first approval to at least three years from now.
Hopes for pre-submission process
Iñigo Charola, CEO and co-founder of Spanish cultured meat start-up BioTech Foods, ‘agrees totally’ with Brandes’ workings.
However, Charola revealed hopes that a recent change to EFSA’s submission process could improve the regulatory procedure.
In March this year, EFSA published administrative guidance for the preparation of applications on novel foods, covering new provisions in the pre-submission phase.
Without knowing the drivers behind this decision, the BioTech Foods CEO likes to think it will allow the regulator to ‘prepare in advance’, provide feedback to companies on what precise information will be assessed, and ultimately, help businesses to ‘prepare a little bit better’.
A similar kind of dialogue has been observed in the Singapore Food Agency’s (SFA) approach, which Charola praised at the New Food Conference. “In the Singapore case, the good thing is that you can talk with the regulator, you can have feedback from them, and I think that is obviously a much better situation than submitting a dossier…[when] you don’t have the [regulator] collaborating or working with you.
“So hopefully with this new change in the submission process, [including] the pre-submission requested, things will improve.”
Spotlight on bureaucracy
Peace of Meat’s Brandes also looks up to Singapore’s approach, describing it as something of a ‘north star’.
Concerning the EU’s regulatory process, Brandes suggested bureaucracy and political interest is holding it back. “It’s really hard to induce a certain level of agility and approval process innovation within the regulatory body in Europe.”
EFSA’s risk assessment alone allegedly takes nine months, he continued, not counting any feedback cycle. “So this process, in my opinion, is far too rigid and too slow.
“The Singapore system of approval is set to clear a cultured product within three to six months, they claim, so that is really the north star when it comes to regulatory agility and productivity. And that’s what we urgently need in Europe.”