by Zhiqi Wang
With the introduction of regulations on cultured meat by Singapore Food Agency (SFA), cultured meat is finally no longer a topic in science fiction, but something that can affect all of us. In terms of regulation, there had been much uncertainty regarding the health concerns of consumption of such meat, especially when it comes to traditional definitions of all-natural food. The approval from Singapore for San Francisco-based Eat Just’s cultured chicken meat no doubt provides a much needed confidence boost for many countries’ regulators and consumers alike.
Cultured meat is significantly different from plant-based ones because of their fundamental technologies: Cultured meat is produced in an incubator where animal cells can proliferate to become meat tissue, while plant-based meat uses a variety of plant ingredients to emulate real meat (eg. heme from plant roots emulates the colour of meat). Under the four sections – Variety, Readiness, Time, and Cost – here’s a look at how cultured meat may fare in the near future.
Startups around the world are working hard to develop commercially viable products using cellular agriculture. These range from beef offered by Mosameat (based in the Netherlands), to chicken (Future Meat Technology, Israel), to eggs (JUST, USA), to our locally-based Shiok Meats reinventing seafood. This means that not only will we be expecting cell based steak and ground meat, we can also expect everything else from fish to egg products.
The regulatory approval from SFA has officially fired off the race for companies to get their first products approved and shipped out. There are many dimensions to readiness, including technology, market and regulatory, and all of these need to be achieved to a certain level before it becomes available.
In terms of regulation, many questions remain on how such products need to be labelled in order to inform consumers. This is evident in the debate in the EU regarding the labelling of plant-based meat as “meat” and non-dairy milk as “milk”. Singapore is indeed the testbed of cultured meat from around the world and all eyes are on this crucial test market to convince other regulators and consumers of the viability.
Experts on the topic believe that consumers in Singapore will be able to find cultured meat by the end of next year. However, this doesn’t mean that cultured meat will replace conventionally-produced meat by then because these meats will likely only be available in specialty stores and restaurants. Supermarket-level availability might only be a reality in the next 3-5 years and even that remains highly dependent on cost improvements.
The price of cultured meat is almost certainly going to be many times higher than conventionally-produced meat at the beginning. After all, traditional animal cultivation has had a head start of hundreds of years, with gradual improvement in productivity and efficiency over time.
However, cultured meat has a fundamentally less complex production, so the cost of producing cultured meat will undoubtedly be reduced over time. Hence, the true question is whether there will be sufficient consumers who are willing to support these startups in their journey to commercialisation. A key measure used in price estimation is the cost of cell medium, and the effective reduction of medium price can accelerate the commercialisation of cultured meat.
Where to go from here
In conclusion, there is a lot to be excited about cultured meat in Singapore (we are literally the world’s first to approve of the sale) and we can be among the first to taste cruelty-free animal products. Nonetheless, there are loads of questions unanswered at the moment and the society, together with regulators, will need to collectively decide on the future of this technology.
After all, eating is one of the most personal (and some say important) activities for almost everyone (especially Singaporeans), and providing consumers an alternative that doesn’t compromise taste or affordability might just be the defining work of our generation.