By Dr Hazel Khoo, Executive Director, Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation, Agency for Science, Technology and Research, and Senior Director, Singapore Food Agency (SFA); and Professor John Lim, Executive Director, Centre of Regulatory Excellence (CoRE), Duke-NUS Medical School, and Chair, Novel Food Safety Expert Working Group, SFA
“We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”
In a 1932 essay titled “Fifty Years Hence”, Winston Churchill penned these words capturing his thoughts on how the future of food production would look like. Today, what Churchill had envisioned decades ago may no longer be science fiction.
This has been made possible with advances in tissue engineering used in modern medical applications applied to protein production for human consumption.
The end product is an alternative to conventional meat, commonly known as cultured meat (also known as cultivated or cell-based meat) grown from animal cells. Considered a type of novel food, cultured meat does not have a history of being consumed as
food. As such, its safety has to be assessed before it can be allowed to be used in food for human consumption. This is unlike other forms of alternative proteins such as traditional plant-based "mock meat" products made of soy or wheat proteins that
are already a staple in many of our diets.
While cultured meat may sound strange and even unappetising, there are many sound reasons why we could consider it a sustainable source of food in the near future.
The Future of Food
Since the days where Mark Post of Dutch food tech company Mosa Meat announced the first US$280,000 cultured cell hamburger live on air in London in 2013, several companies have rapidly joined the race. These include America’s Memphis Meats, and
Japan’s IntegriCulture. The industry has also since attracted increasing amounts of funding. In Singapore, companies such as Shiok Meats are developing technologies that will yield cultured crustaceans for dining tables. Last year, it was announced
that Shiok Meats received US$12.6 million (S$17.3 million) in Series A funding.
Despite the hype, the truth is that the cultured meat industry is still in its early years. Apart from consumer education on this novel food, several factors need to be overcome before cultured meat enters the mainstream food supply. While it appears
the cost of producing lab-grown meat has been lowered recently – according to Reuters, ambitious start-ups say they can churn out cultured meat hamburgers priced at US$10 each by 2021 - scalability remains a challenge for many in the industry.
Scientists are still researching ways to replace expensive culture media, and finding methods of culturing cells rapidly and at high volumes. Furthermore, the cultured meat industry also faces stiff competition from plant and microbial-based alternative
proteins due to the relatively lower costs, as well as higher production capabilities and consumer acceptance level.
That said, drivers of interest in cultured meat include consumers’ preference for more sustainable and animal cruelty-free food options. The necessity for urbanised cities such as Singapore to diversify their sources of food, is also a key impetus.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need to strengthen the resilience of Singapore’s food security. In March 2019, Singapore announced its “30 by 30” goal — to produce 30 per cent of Singapore’s nutritional
needs locally by 2030. The aim is to increase the cultivation of vegetables and boost the production of protein sources to significantly enhance Singapore’s local food supply, up from less than 10 per cent today.
Innovations such as cultured meat hold the potential to mitigate some of our food challenges as they can be produced with relatively small amounts of land and labour, and in a climate-resilient and sustainable manner.
Food and the City
Fortunately for us, Singapore has a competitive advantage in becoming the leading R&D hub in novel food for Asia.
In addition to food and nutrition, our city-state has built deep capabilities in tissue engineering, bioprocessing, and advanced manufacturing across the research ecosystem. Our institutes of higher learning, including the National University of Singapore,
Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and the Polytechnics, as well as research institutes at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) and Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory, have developed both upstream and plug-and-play technologies.
These range from the discovery of naturally-occurring compounds for use as flavours or colorants, to novel materials that can be used as scaffolds to grow cells and add texture, making cultured meat palatable. These complementary technologies also seed
the relevant skills and know-how essential to the novel food industry in Singapore.
One area in which Singapore aims to become recognised in Asia is the safety assessment of novel foods. A*STAR’s Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation, Bioprocessing Technology Institute, and Bioinformatics Institute, along with
the Future Ready Food Safety Hub - a joint initiative of the Singapore Food Agency (SFA), A*STAR and NTU - are just some of the teams collaborating to build up Singapore’s food safety science in areas such as cultured meat. Discussions
among regulatory authorities, scientists, and food tech firms facilitated by these teams are key to solutions that will appeal to global food suppliers while meeting stringent requirements of both consumers and regulators.
Ensuring Safety of Cultured Meat
As with the development of all food products, novel or otherwise, ensuring food safety is critical and fundamental. Simply put, this means cultured meat needs to meet similar levels of safety to that of conventional meat.
In traditional animal husbandry, the safety of animal feed is carefully studied before they are allowed. This is no different for cultured meat. Where animals receive nutrients through their diet, cultured cells are fed nutrients such as carbohydrates
and minerals through the nutrient media they are grown in. These nutrients are absorbed by the cells, and transform as the cells grow. The cells are then placed in a bioreactor to grow, similar to existing food production processes such as the growing
of yeast cells or lactic acid bacteria for beer and yoghurt.
To ensure cells are safe when consumed as cultured meat, the safety of all individual media substances is carefully studied. Tests are conducted to ascertain if the level of residual substances are safe, or if the components that are not absorbed have
been completely removed from the cells. The types of tests used to determine the safety of media components are the same as those applied to any new food ingredient being introduced into the market, and include both chemical and toxicological characterisation.
As with all food manufacturing and production processes, the culturing of meat is no different and proper systems need to be put in place to ensure Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) and implementation of Hazards Analysis Critical Control (HACCP) systems,
or other equivalent food safety management systems to mitigate the risk of contamination.
When it comes to regular meat, the butchery process can introduce pathogens that are on the surface or in the intestinal tract of animals, to the processed cuts of meat. The advantage of cultured meat is that it can be produced under carefully controlled
conditions where the presence of microorganisms can be prevented, and the final products can readily be pasteurised to remove microbial contaminants.
It is therefore important for cultured meat manufacturers to apply the concept of food safety by design throughout the manufacturing process. They must adhere to standard and stringent hygiene practices of food production to ensure end products are safe
Currently, companies that intend to produce cultured meat are required to conduct and submit safety assessments to cover potential food safety risks. These include factors such as the toxicity and allergenicity of the meat itself as well as the components
used in the culture media, and the safety of its production method. Anticipated dietary exposure arising from consumption of food items containing cultured meat should also be assessed, even if the product has not been launched in the market.
To ensure that safety assessments are rigorously reviewed, SFA established a Novel Food Safety Expert Working Group, comprising experts in food science, food technology, food toxicology, bioinformatics, nutrition, epidemiology and public health policy,
in March 2020. Data such as the processes, manufacturing controls and safety testing of cultured meat is reviewed by SFA and the expert working group, and the sale of cultured meat products would only be allowed after they have been assessed to be
safe for consumption.
This is aligned to other countries and regions, such as Australia, Europe and New Zealand, where companies are required to conduct safety assessments for novel food. This is expected to be the process applied for cultured meat as the technology matures
and these products enter commercial production.
When these cultured meat products enter the market, companies will be required to label the product packaging with qualifying terms such as “cultured”, “cultivated” or “cell-based” to clearly communicate the nature
of food sold. This will allow consumers to make informed decisions when deciding whether to consume the products. In addition, the food products would be subject to inspection and sampling by SFA to ensure that they meet regulatory standards, similar
to other imported and locally manufactured food products.
Levelling up our food R&D landscape
To remain competitive, Singapore hosts an ecosystem of companies from multinational corporations to start-ups and local enterprises experimenting with new ways to solve challenging global problems to do with food. To foster innovation and encourage high-potential
food tech companies to anchor their businesses in Singapore, multi-agency efforts across SFA, A*STAR, Enterprise Singapore and the Economic Development Board provide the innovation support needed for such agri-food start-ups and enterprises to innovate
and build up capabilities, in order to grow and thrive.
Beyond intellectual and human capital, we have cultivated an integrated ecosystem that pairs innovation with regulation, industry partnerships, and workforce development. Our engagement of multiple stakeholders has enabled Singapore to support end-to-end
growth across the value chain, vital to an emerging industry like that of cultured meat.
But for Singapore’s food game plan to be truly successful, our robust and scientifically-based regulatory framework will need to continue being agile and adapt to address the latest developments in this rapidly evolving field. After all, this is
how we have been able to push the envelope on innovation, so that consumers can access novel food such as cultured meat and eat with peace of mind.
The makings of cultured meat
In brief, cultured meat is created from specially selected animal cells grown in controlled environments.
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