Cultivated meat: The potential future of food risks ruin from regulation
(Science Photo Library / Alamy Stock Photo)
Cultivated meat has been making headlines as a possible way to make food production more environmentally friendly, but as Tali Fraser discovers, those working on this innovation say they are being stymied by regulation
“Two North London Jewish boys growing cultivated pork”: that is Hoxton Farms summed up by one of the founders, Max Jamilly. “It makes for all kinds of stories on a Friday night,” he tells the House at their office in Shoreditch. They do both eat pork as, in their case, “it is important to know what we are trying to replace”.
Hoxton Farms focuses on cultivated fat, which they sell on to meat alternative companies, like plant-based proteins. “The fat is the tasty bit,” he says. They are producing at the bench scale, in tablespoons, but are scaling up and moving around the corner to a 14,000 square foot facility which will be home to thousands of litres of culture capacity – and a small pilot scale manufacturer.
Jamilly says that the three-year-old company began with a seed round of $4.5m but soon raised $22m from investors, turning them from a biotech company to a food company.
It works like this: they take a selection of animal cells, which would have developed into fat, through harmless biopsies or the occasional death. Those cells are modified to “essentially grow forever, meaning we never have to go back to the animal”. They are stored in a freezer, in big tanks of liquid nitrogen, and eventually put into a fermenter, similar to brewing beer.
The cells are fed farm-based food to convince them they are still inside the pig or cow and they start maturing into fat tissue, with the whole process taking three to four weeks, at the end of which actual fat tissue can be harvested. Other companies are focused on reproducing the meat itself and using body tissues that do not require a death.
Greater consumption of plant-based protein and cultivated meat has been touted as a way to a more sustainable food system. It uses less land, feed, water and antibiotics than traditional farming; it could remove the need to rear and slaughter animals; and supporters of cultivated meat, including the government, say it could help reduce emissions from meat production, especially methane, which represent six per cent of global emissions.
But one study – not yet peer-reviewed – from the University of California has warned the process is so energy-intensive that the global warming impact could be between four to 25 times higher than beef, the typically worst polluting meat. The Good Food Institute (GFI), an alternative protein research body, says differently and in a recent assessment found that lab-grown meat could, in fact, have a lower carbon footprint.
Earlier this year the United States declared cultured meat safe for human consumption, but the United Kingdom is yet to do so. Singapore is the only country in the world to have approved cultivated meat products for sale with lab-grown chicken first served in a restaurant in 2020.
Because of this, there might not be a long-term future for Hoxton Farms in the UK. “The current plan – and it will almost definitely remain this way – is that we will be going to the US or Singapore for approval, and go to market first in the US,” Jamilly says.
“We are proud to be a British, London-based company. It is in our name. We spend a lot of time engaging with important UK stakeholders on the government side, UK customers and the food world. We would love to go to market here… but unfortunately, the regulatory landscape for cultivated meat in the UK is such that it is just not worth the risk for us to wait.”
Sitting on the coffee table is a binder of documents that other companies have successfully submitted to get US approval. Hoxton Farms has monthly conversations with the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA): “They are extremely supportive”. In contrast, Jamilly describes the process with the Food Standards Agency (FSA) as “incredibly frustrating and just completely nebulous”.
The regulatory landscape for cultivated meat in the UK is such that it is just not worth the risk
“If there was any silver lining of Brexit, it was this offer of deregulation in particular foods,” he adds, “but the approval process for cultivated meat remains this area of massive confusion.”
Jamilly says it is unclear where oversight – what of and how much – lies with the FSA compared to Defra or DSIT, leaving companies in a state where: “We don’t know what we have to do.” He says there is no clear process set out by the FSA as to what companies are required to submit for a successful approval.
Jamilly adds: “When we speak to the FSA, they say: “We’re open for dossier submission. Why has no one submitted a dossier yet?” And we ask them this question: ‘Why do you think no one submitted it?’… It’s a little bit like a teacher waiting for the first exam to get submitted before they come up with the mark scheme.”
Linus Pardoe, UK policy manager at the Good Food Institute (GFI), agrees with his assessment on the lack of clarity from the FSA: “The material isn’t out there in the level of specification that companies require… companies don’t know the exact specifications or requirements of what the FSA is looking for.”
In the US, Jamilly says, “it is not an adversarial team, it is supportive” – and by the time they submit, they will be “pretty sure” how it is going to go, with a mechanism for back and forth to identify any gaps.
As things stand, it is not clear if Hoxton Farms will even manufacture in the UK either. “Though Singapore would likely let us import cultivated fat, we don’t know if the UK would let us export. So it is not just domestic approval that needs sorting, there are other aspects of regulation, all of which needs to come into place for us to continue benefiting from operating in the UK,” he adds.
This is a trend also recognised by Professor Che Connon, professor of tissue engineering at Newcastle University and founder of CellRev and 3D Bio-Tissues, who brands the regulatory system “tricky”. He adds: “What we have heard is that it is the US now that people are looking to as Europe is in a mess.”
If there was any silver lining of Brexit, it was this offer of deregulation in particular foods
Professor Marianne Ellis, professor of bioprocessing and tissue engineering at the University of Bath, agrees: “Every company, I would say, has got half an eye on whether they need to move their manufacturing to Singapore – and it would be a real shame if we lose another high-tech industry to another country.”
Part of the appeal for moving abroad are the clearer points of governmental contacts. Hoxton Farms say they don’t have a single contact point at Defra, DSIT or the FSA: “It is very difficult for us to know who to engage with in government… it is pretty frustrating and often feels like a redundant process.”
Pardoe believes that there are simple “low hanging fruit” that would allow for changes, like allowing a level of consultation to take place between a company and the FSA before submitting its dossier, opening up a direct line of communication between the regulator and companies at an early stage – “and this wouldn’t require any legislative changes”.
“None of this is to criticise the FSA,” he says, “I think there is a real sense that they appreciate the potential here.”
“They are also a department that is really stretched as well, with their oversight expanded since Brexit, just like many regulators have, but their financial settlement hasn’t necessarily been reflected in that same way.”
But, Pardoe says, hearing that top companies are likely to move their manufacturing is the most concerning sign. “That becomes a problem larger than just the FSA. It is more of a big picture, industrial strategy question of what vision do we want for this industry. We haven’t had that view from government yet.”
Every company has got half an eye on whether they need to move their manufacturing to Singapore
This lack of technical vision is a frustration shared by Hoxton Farms – and the overall impact is one that leaves startups “almost encouraged to leave the UK”. Jamilly says: “Lots of ministers spend a lot of time talking about how important deep tech and innovation and startups are in this economy and yet this kind of regulatory environment, and the related lack of capital for startups to grow, means that startups like this one are almost encouraged to leave the UK as soon as they get to a certain size.”
While GFI’s Pardoe recognises UK Research and Innovation has upped its spending, there haven’t been similar commitments from Defra or DSIT and an increase in speed for this public money is needed for a closer relationship between the university and private sectors.
As he puts it: “[Government] funding is a drop in the ocean of where we need it to be in the long term.”
Professor Ellis, who leads the Cellular Agriculture Manufacturing Hub (CARMA) – a seven-year project looking at how cellular agriculture products like cultivated meat can be manufactured at scale – is pleased because, plainly, “we have just got £12m” but, she adds, “that is not to say it has been easy”.
Connon has stronger words on this front. “The government has been far too slow to react,” he says, “which is frustrating because we have seen other governments around the world be able to… we actually had an opportunity to be leaders in biosciences in this field, but we have certainly missed opportunities and are letting it slip.”
It is a similar story from Benjamina Bollag and her company Higher Steaks, who are focused on cultivated meat with pork belly and bacon, having built a 15,000 square foot pilot facility in Cambridge.
They are looking to choose a location for their future manufacturing in the next six to 12 months and are planning to go for approval in the UK, but she says “while we would like to manufacture in the UK, at the moment it is more attractive in other countries”.
Pardoe still sees many opportunities, including areas for politicians to get it right. “The role that politicians can play is in making sure that they educate themselves, “ he says, “that’s potentially their biggest role: It’s not going to be in legislation, it’s going to be talking loudly and proudly, formatively about the potential of sustainable proteins.”
A spokesperson for the FSA said the regulator would be engaging with the cultivated meat industry, adding: “Ensuring the safety of any new and innovative food product, including cultivated meat, is paramount, and we must balance fast paced technological advances and industry demands for rapid approval processes with protecting public health.”
Bollag remains positive: “The UK has a huge amount of things in its favour. We have exceptional talent and a strong capacity to really flourish in this industry.”
She has one major parting message, especially on regulation – and it is something she has shared with the FSA: “Keep being tough, just be quicker!”
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