Cultivated meat companies gear up for first EU approval applications

As it stands, there are currently at least 20 startups operating across 8 different European countries working in this area. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

Amid growing interest in plant-based diets, European cultivated meat companies are preparing to take their first steps towards EU approval, but some warn the technology could do more harm than good.

Cultured meat, also known as synthetic, artificial or in-vitro meat, is a product obtained by harvesting animal muscle cells that are then placed in a bioreactor and fed with protein to stimulate tissue growth.

Between rising concerns over the environmental impact of the overconsumption of meat and also ethical considerations, technologies such as cultured meat and plant-based substitutes are rapidly gaining momentum.

Cultured meat was recently endorsed in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report as a key technology that could help bring a “substantial reduction in direct GHG emissions from food production” by 2030.

After several approvals elsewhere in the world, such as in Singapore, what once seemed like science fiction could now become a reality for the EU in a matter of years.

“It’s no longer a pipe dream,” Alex Holst from the Good Food Institute (GFI) Europe told EURACTIV, adding that, while EU consumers are still a few years away from seeing cultivated meat on supermarket shelves, he expects that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) will see the first application “very soon”.

There are currently at least 20 startups working in this area across eight different European countries.

A number of these companies have grouped under the umbrella organisation Cellular Agriculture Europe, whose President Robert Jones confirmed that, while there is no dossier pending currently, he “expects dossiers to be filed this year”.

In Europe, food consisting of, isolated from, or produced from cell culture or tissue culture derived from animals, plants, micro-organisms, fungi or algae falls within the scope of the EU Novel Foods Regulation.

Therefore, cultured meat would require a pre-market authorisation and approval by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). However, it is unclear what type of nutritional and toxicological evidence EFSA would require to approve it.

Lean and green?

For both Holst and Jones, one of the technology’s main advantages lies in its environmental benefits.

According to a recent life-cycle analysis produced by research and consultancy firm CE Delft, cultured meat used less land and carried a lower carbon footprint than conventional meats.

When created using renewable energy sources, these benefits are even more pronounced, according to Jones.

“When you layer [renewable energy] on top of that there, there is the potential for a large environmental improvement, which is probably one of the strongest arguments in favour of this technology,” he said, adding there is the potential for the overall carbon footprint of cultivated meat to be 93% lower than conventionally produced meat.

However, Jones pointed out that, while companies have made significant progress in scaling up and refining techniques, the industry requires more public investment to ensure the technology reaches its potential.

Likewise, Holst warned that, without concerted investment, the EU risks “falling behind” other areas of the world, especially in Asia and the US, but also the UK.

While the sector has won some EU and national funding, this is a “drop in the ocean” compared to elsewhere, he warned.

Commission stands by €2 million EU grant for synthetic meat

The European Commission, challenged by Italian EU lawmakers, has defended the move to grant €2 million from the EU’s Recovery Fund to a research and development project designed to move forward in cellular agriculture and curb costs of lab-grown meat.

But not all are as convinced by cultivated meat’s green credentials.

According to a comprehensive review of studies on meat and protein, released on Thursday (7 April) by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), cultured meat may do more harm than good.

This is because, rather than challenging the system, cultured meat instead “entrenches the domination of food systems by giant agri-business firms, standardised diets of processed foods, and industrial supply chains that harm people and the planet,” the report states, pointing out that alternative protein market is now characterised by giant companies who create so-called “protein monopolies”.

The growing interest in the technology has won several high profile backers, including Bill Gates and Richard Branson, as well as significant investments and acquisitions from the world’s largest meat processing companies, including JBS, Cargill, and Tyson.

“It’s easy to see why people would be drawn to the marketing and hype – but fake meat will not save the planet,” Philip Howard, member of IPES-Food and lead author of the report, said, warning that, in many cases, switching to fake meat will “make the problems with our industrial food system worse”.

This includes fossil fuel dependence, industrial monocultures, pollution, unhealthy diets, and control by massive corporations, he explained.

“Just as electric cars are not a silver bullet to fix climate change, fake meat is not going to fix our damaging industrial food system,” Howard concluded.

Meanwhile, Olivier De Schutter, co-chair of IPES-Food and UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, added that the narrative of people needing more protein to prevent hunger is being used as an “excuse to leap on techno-fixes like fake meat”.

“It’s time to turn down the protein hype and turn up the focus on democratic, sustainable food systems rooted in regions and territories,” he said.

The expert panel calls instead for greater focus on entire food systems and comprehensive food policies using broader sustainability metrics in efforts to redirect resources from “‘big protein’ businesses to the public good”.

Cultured meat could be on the EU market 'as early as 2022'

After environmentalist George Monbiot’s controversial “Apocalypse Cow” documentary recently suggested that we may soon see the end of all farming, EURACTIV took a look at cultured meat to see what it is and where we’re at.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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