Future Food Now: cultivated meat approved in Singapore, more about APAC cell-based sector
It was easy to decide which topic I should dive into this time. Singapore’s approval of the cell-based meat product to be sold to consumers - the first country in the world to grant one - has been called “historic” for a reason.
I had a chance to taste an early prototype of Eat Just’s cultured chicken in Singapore in late 2018, around the time that the regulatory review process started. The product clearly has come a long way since then. So has the cell-based startup scene in APAC with plenty of new companies working on a variety of products, from meat and seafood to dairy.
In this newsletter, I cover the historic approval and share entrepreneurs’ and market experts’ perspectives on how this will impact the regulatory landscape in Asia Pacific region.
PS. As usual, if you like what you read here, spread the love by forwarding it to your friends/coworkers and sharing on social media.
GOOD Meat Cultured Chicken bites, source: Eat Just
Singapore first to approve cell-based meat - what do we know?
There has been no shortage of articles in the media on the cultured chicken product approved for sale in Singapore - here is a rundown of key facts.
How did we get here?
Eat Just, San Francisco-based food tech startup, has been working on cell-based meat from 2017, when it acquired patents by Willem van Eelen (“godfather of cultured meat”).
Founder Josh Tetrick said the company has been seeking the regulatory approval in three jurisdictions, including Singapore and the U.S. (he declined to name the third one).
“Singapore from the get-go was the most rigorous and had the clearest intention,” Tetrick said. “I think they saw this as something that they wanted to take a hard look at [and] build a regulatory framework. They do what they think is in the best interest of their populace in their country, and they do it.”
In their review, the regulators took a close look at both the product composition and manufacturing process, including potential for contamination from pathogens like salmonella and E. coli. The nutritional aspects, as well as the quality, integrity and safety of the cell line, were all looked at. The agency also brought in outside experts.
The process reportedly took over 2 years leading to the approval by Singapore Food Agency (SFA) in late November 2020.
Where is it produced?
The cultured chicken has been manufactured locally at the Food Innovation and Resource Centre, a food research facility co-run by Singapore Polytechnic and Enterprise Singapore, according to CNA. The company is using 1,200-liter bioreactor, which “can produce a sufficient amount of product for a handful of restaurants on the island nation.”
How long does it take to make it?
According to Eat Just, the manufacturing process takes “a few weeks from an established and validated chicken cell bank”. For comparison, in a typical factory farm, chickens are slaughtered at the age of four to seven weeks.
What is the final product’s form factor?
Chicken bites (see the image at the top of this newsletter), which are expected to have a similar texture to regular chicken nuggets. The company plans to introduce other formats in 2021 with improved texture and taste, including “chicken breasts” (photo).
What’s in it (and what is not)?
Over 70% of the initial product is made of cultured chicken cells. The other major ingredient is a mung bean protein, the same that Eat Just is using in its plant-based JUST Egg product line. According to Vítor E. Santo (Director of Cellular Agriculture at Eat Just), the mung bean protein is also providing the scaffolding structure for chicken cells. The product is not genetically modified and uses no antibiotics. The company also claims that it has “much lower microbiological content [E. Coli, Salmonella etc.] because the chicken cells are grown in a safe, sterile and controlled environment”.
How is it going to be called?
A separate brand, GOOD Meat has been created specifically for cell-based meat products, to distinguish them from plant-based JUST Egg line. The company refers to the category as “cultured meat” and to the first product as “GOOD Meat Cultured Chicken”.
When and where will it be sold?
The first venue to launch the product has been 1880 in Singapore on December 19th. 1880 is not a typical dining place, but a private club with a member-only restaurant called Leonie’s, led by Executive Chef Colin Buchan, former private chef to David and Victoria Beckham, who also worked with Gordon Ramsay for over a decade.
Is it available to the public?
Not yet. The initial launch consisted of a series of invite-only events involving about 40-50 diners, starting with “a group of inspiring young people committed to building a better planet” who “paid the check on Saturday [Dec 19th] at 7:23 p.m. Singapore time”.
According to the press release “the restaurant  is planning to feature a cultured chicken dish on its menu in 2021 for the price of a premium conventional chicken dish”.
Founder of 1880, Marc Nicholson, confirmed to me it will be part of a menu accessible to club members and their guests, as well as served at selected events.
Further roll out in more easily accessible restaurants is expected sometime in 2021.
Does it “taste like chicken”?
First official account from a food writer is in - by Eunice Quek from Straits Times Food. In her extended Instagram review she noted “crisp exterior, inside softer than your usual chicken but not mush”. Another diner quoted in her article said: “The nugget really tasted like a nugget. If I closed my eyes, I don’t think I can tell the difference between the cell-based meat and real meat.”
How much does it cost?
At this point still much more than the conventional chicken. The exact cost of production has not been revealed. Last year the company said one chicken nugget costs US$50 to make. However, the cost decreased >40 fold since the end of 2018, Vítor E. Santo said during Cellular Agriculture Summit.
The widely shared pictures of the first check are showing the price of S$23 (~US$17.30) for a chicken course consisting of several ‘bites’ or ‘nuggets’. It is likely a symbolic price, not necessary reflecting the cost. Josh Tetrick has been quoted saying the company is not making any money on these initial sales.
Does it use Fetal Bovine Serum (FBS*)?
For now, yes. When Eat Just has started the approval process in Singapore 2 years ago it did not yet have a reliable serum-free medium. The specific product and manufacturing process that has been approved by the Singapore Food Agency is “produced with a very low level of bovine serum", which is “effectively removed through the harvesting and washing procedure”. The company said it has now developed “an animal-free nutrient recipe to feed our cells”, however, it is still “pending regulatory review”.
* FBS comes from the blood drawn from a bovine fetus, which requires the slaughter of a pregnant cow. Considered a ‘by-product’ of the dairy industry, it is the most widely used source of growth factors for the in vitro cell culture. Majority of cell-based meat companies are actively working on replacing it with animal-free version, due to unethical sourcing and very high cost.
Chef Colin Buchan from 1880 with GOOD Meat chicken, source: Eat Just
Cell-based startup scene in Asia Pacific
Before I explore the impact that Singapore’s approval of Eat Just product is likely to have, let’s have a look at the region’s cell-based startup scene.
There are currently 18 out-of-stealth startups in Asia Pacific working either directly on cell-based meat, seafood and dairy or on supporting technologies. Five of them (highlighted in the table below) publicly announced closing substantial funding rounds, typically min. US$500k, while few others are actively raising money. The total funding to date for the sector in APAC is over US$50 million (including government grants and competition prizes) with the majority of that amount raised in 2020. Seven startups on the list are based in Singapore - and that group represents more than half of the total funding pool so far.
Cell-based startups in APAC (highlight: $500k+ funding), source: own research
Implications for the industry in APAC
To get a better sense of the implications of Singapore’s approval, I talked to founders and market experts from the key markets in Asia Pacific.
There seems to be a consensus that this decision will help to accelerate regulatory pathways for other startups & countries.
Elaine Siu, Managing Director of The Good Food Institute Asia Pacific, the organisation working to support the transition to sustainable protein, 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.”
Founder and CEO of Eat Just, Josh Tetrick, is also recognising the trailblazing character of this decision:
“I’m sure that our regulatory approval […] will be the first of many in Singapore and in countries around the globe.”
Let’s dive deeper into selected markets in Asia Pacific:
Singapore Food Agency’s recent decision is product/process-specific and it is NOT a blanket approval for all cell-based products in Singapore (even Eat Just needs to re-apply for any variations).
It is not yet clear to if/when this approval will form the basis for a more comprehensive regulatory framework.
Local startups are in touch with SFA and hoping the decision will help to accelerate their respective approvals.
Sandhya Sriram, founder and CEO of a best-funded cell-based startup in APAC, Shiok Meats said:
“[SFA] is diligent and very supportive of cell-based meats. We already are and will be working closely with them. We are aiming for approval [for our cell-based seafood products] sometime in 2022.”
Vinayaka Srinivas, founder of Gaia Foods shared:
“We are planning to get approval for our first [meat] products within the next 2-3 years. Upon more companies applying for approval, SFA may come up with a more detailed guideline, so that new products will need much less than 2 years that it took for [Eat Just product]”.
Mihir Pershad, founder of Umami Meats (serum-free media) said:
“We find it valuable to be in an ecosystem with such a transparent and forward-thinking regulatory body. It reduces the regulatory risk of bringing a new product to market. Our goal is to submit our data package to SFA in late 2021 and to receive first approval in early 2023 (or late 2022 if timeline gets faster).”
Asked if and how the approval process might be different for serum-free media (which is a component used in the production process, but not directly consumed by the end consumer) Mihir said:
“We are currently working as though our product will need to receive a novel foods approval to be included in cultured meat products. Our upcoming conversations with SFA should help to shed some light on this particular line of reasoning. ”
Fengru Lin, founder and CEO of TurtleTree Labs (cell-based milk) told me:
“We continue to engage the regulators to place our products on a clearer path to market. We are part of a consumer study commissioned by SFA for alternative proteins, through the Future REady Food Safety Hub (FRESH) Platform.”
FRESH platform that Fengru mentioned above is a good example of a collaborative and proactive approach Singapore is taking here. Minister of Environment said in this speech from 2019, that the platform “would not only allow first-in-market food products to be safely launched in Singapore, it could also help promote Singapore-developed food standards internationally.”
Australia (and NZ)
According to the founder of Cellular Agriculture Australia, Bianca Lê, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) is directly responsible for regulating cell-based meat for both Australia and NZ: “It has stated that cultivated meat would be captured within the existing framework of the Food Standards Code and will require pre-market approval.”
Bianca thinks “SFA’s decision will create a domino effect” as “FSNAZ are keeping a close eye on how other regulatory bodies will regulate cell-based products”.
Sam Lawrence, Director of Policy and Government Relations at alt protein think tank Food Frontier, added:
“A real-world competitive example will spur the agency to ensure A/NZ is equally competitive as the world moves towards commercial production and eventually international trade in cellular agriculture products.”
As for the timeline, Lawrence said that “the application process for approval of new products varies and can reasonably be expected to take 12-18 months”.
George Peppou, co-founder and CEO of Australian cell-based meat startup Vow told me they “maintain a dialogue with FSANZ”, which is “actively looking at cultured meat and how to approach regulation, consulting with companies like us”.
Would Vow consider launching in Singapore first if that helps them to accelerate market entry? Co-founder Tim Noakesmith is clearly open to the idea:
“Vow was born a global company. The fastest moving and most progressive regulators will form a big part of selecting our first markets. We are huge fans of Singapore’s progressive stance on cultured meat, and the wonderful food culture representing so many global cuisines. We would be delighted to launch in Singapore.”
Regulatory environment for cell-based seems much less clear in Hong Kong.
Local startup Avant Meats so far “has not received a signal from HK departments for any new or change to existing regulatory provisions for cell-based meat”, according to co-founder and CEO, Carrie Chan.
Carrie refers to an example of Impossible Foods (Hong Kong has been the first international market for the American company’s plant-based meat that includes novel GM ingredients):
“For Impossible, there is case whereby the product is approved and has track record of safety in other major jurisdictions. It is taken into consideration to decide whether the product can be sold in HK.”
I heard a similar sentiment from my other sources: HK is relying almost entirely on imported food and their food safety processes are build around “green-lighting” import of the products that have been approved by regulatory bodies in key global markets (e.g. FDA).
However “this practice may or may not apply to cell-based meat”, said Carrie.
Is she thinking about launching Avant products in Singapore first? “Yes, we consider seriously the plan to apply to SFA and product launch upon approval”.
At the time of writing, I have not been able to confirm if China’s regulatory agencies started to work on a cell-based meat approval framework.
There have been reports on “calls for a national strategy for development of cell-based meat sector” during “high level plenary meeting”. In 2019 cell-based meat briefly made headlines in China when a team at Nanjing Agricultural University produced 5 gram of pork from muscle stem cells.
Dr. Ding Shijie, who has been a core member of that team and is now CTO of cell-based meat startup Nanjing Zhouzi Future Food Technology Co has recently told GFI APAC that “he believes that regulatory decisions from Singapore could serve as examples for the Chinese government and others to follow”.
It is not yet clear which institutions will be involved in regulating the space. Carrie Chan from Avant Meats:
“As the matter is still under development, we cannot say for sure the exact departments. We have the impression that it will not be one department [like SFA in SG] or even two as in the case of the US. We heard the possibility of more parties involved. That may still change as the process is streamlined.”
My source (preferred not to be named) made this interesting observation:
“China may seem late to the game at the moment, but the way the system works there, they have the ability cut through the red tape and get the regulations done in a very short time if it becomes a national priority.”
And with the competitive global market and growing food sovereignty concerns, I would not be personally surprised if that will be the case.
Arguably the most interesting regulatory situation in the region at the moment. As GFI’s Naoto Yamaguchi writes in the blog post:
“Currently, it is possible to sell [cell-based meat] in Japan, depending on the interpretation of existing laws.”
Yuki Hanyu, the founder & CEO of Japan’s pioneer cell-based startup Integriculture explains further:
“Cell-based meat is not considered ‘novel food’ in Japan. In other words, there is no regulatory barrier in marketing cell-based meat for now, as long as the cell-based meat is produced according to the preexisting regulations.”
What’s the catch?
Elaine Siu from GFI explains that to be compliant with existing regulations, the products would have to meet two criteria:
No externally sourced growth factors as they are currently not approved as food or food additives in Japan
No immortalised cells
That effectively eliminates most of the startups from selling in the market. Integriculture however could potentially qualify as their proprietary CulNet System works with in vivo growth factors and does not use immortalised cells.
Yuki points out to another potential issue:
“If there are any consumer concerns, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare (MHLW) may assume ‘novelty’ in cell-based meat and start introducing new regulations.”
Integriculture is planning to launch cell-cultured cosmetics in Japan in April-May 2021, and cell-cultured foie gras in December 2021 as “demonstration products for our CulNet System technology”, according to Hanyu.
Asked about Singapore, Yuki said he is not planning to launch consumer products there. Integriculture’s core business model is “Bioreactor as a Service” and according to Hanyu “it makes more sense to assist Singaporean users of the CulNet System to get regulatory approval locally”. Earlier this year the company announced a partnership with SG-based startup Shiok Meats.
According to Varun Deshpande, Managing Director of GFI India, cell-based meat is expected to be regulated by The Food Safety & Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), an autonomous body under the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare.
It is still early days for cell-based meat in India. Varun’s team is working to connect Indian regulators with their counterparts in Singapore and elsewhere to accelerate the pathway to approval. He told me:
“Singapore has demonstrated visionary leadership with SFA’s rigorous, evidence-based regulatory process. We are in active conversation with the FSSAI. Interactions among regulators to share data and insights can help move this along, so enabling government-to-government consultations is a key piece of our strategy in the country.”
We've come a long way / there's a long way to go
In 2013 Mark Post and his team from the Maastricht University, made history by presenting the world’s first cell-based burger, reportedly spending $330,000 on the project.
Little over 7 years later the first officially approved cell-based meat product is made available to consumers at the small fraction of that price.
It’s worth to take a moment to think about the amazing progress made by scientists and entrepreneurs to make this happen.
And while there is a long way to go for the industry when it comes to cost, taste/texture and even consumer acceptance, it is certainly a milestone to celebrate.