Safety of alternative proteins
As an innovative city, Singapore hosts an ecosystem of companies and organisations which are experimenting with new ways to solve challenging problems faced by countries today. Innovative products such as alternative proteins can potentially meet food challenges as it can be produced with relatively small amounts of land and labour, and in a climate-resilient and sustainable manner. To address this development, the Singapore Food Agency has put in place a regulatory framework to ensure that alternative protein products meets our food safety standards before they are sold in Singapore.
This article provides information on alternative proteins and whether they are safe to eat, and how you can find out if your favourite burger patty from the local supermarket is indeed an alternative protein product.
What is alternative protein?
Alternative protein refers to proteins which do not come from animals. Some alternative proteins, such as plant-based “mock meat” products made of soy or wheat proteins, have long been a traditional feature in our diets.
However, there are other forms of alternative proteins which do not have a history of being consumed as food – including cultured or cell-based meat grown under controlled conditions, and certain species of algae, fungi (mycoprotein) and insects. In Singapore, these alternative proteins are considered novel food and must be assessed for safety before they can be allowed to be used in food for sale.
Are alternative proteins safe to eat?
Food safety must be a principal consideration when companies develop food products, novel or otherwise.
SFA requires companies producing alternative protein products which do not have a history of being consumed as food to conduct safety assessments of the protein to cover potential food safety risks, including toxicity, allergenicity, safety of its production method, and dietary exposure arising from consumption. They must also provide detailed information on the materials used in their manufacturing processes and how these processes are controlled to prevent food safety risks.
SFA will review these safety assessments to ascertain that potential food safety issues have been addressed.
To ensure that the safety assessments are rigorously reviewed, SFA has formed a Novel Food Safety Expert Working Group in March 2020 to provide scientific advice. The expert working group is chaired by the head of the Centre for Regulatory Excellence, which seeks to strengthen health product regulatory systems across Asia. The group comprises of eight experts including four leading specialists in the food toxicology, bioinformatics, nutrition, and epidemiology fields from the public sector (A*STAR, HPB), a medical doctor experienced in public health policy, and three eminent university professors in food science, food technology and food microbiology (NUS, NTU).
SFA will continue to keep abreast of the latest developments and update our safety assessment considerations to ensure food safety.
How would consumers know whether they are eating alternative proteins?
Instead of just labelling their products as meat, companies selling pre-packaged alternative protein products in Singapore will be required to label the product packaging with qualifying terms such as “mock”, “cultured” or “plant-based” to indicate their true nature, so that consumers may make informed decisions when deciding whether to consume these products.
Some examples of such qualifying terms can be seen from the labelling of “mock meat” products, which are made of plant proteins (e.g. soy or wheat) and do not contain any meat, as well as “imitation crabmeat” products made of surimi fish paste.
Food establishments will also be required to clearly communicate to their customers on the true nature of their food sold. For example, misrepresenting cultured meat as conventionally produced meat to consumers will not be allowed.
There are safeguards in place. Food traders and establishments selling alternative protein products, and deemed to misrepresent the true nature of the food sold, may be convicted under the Sale of Food Act.