Across Europe, concerns are being raised about the potential dangers of a burgeoning technology that allows scientists to grow animal tissue, without the need for slaughter.

Referred to as cultivated meat, the process sees the harvesting of stem cells from a donor animal via a biopsy, after which the cells can be stored, replicated, and then grown in a bioreactor, producing a biological replica of conventional meat. This technology represents a step-change in food production, and start-ups around the world are actively working to bring products to market.

Aleph Cuts (4)

Source: Aleph Farms

Product image published bny Aleph Farms

Interest in these products has been driven by their promise to improve food security, the ecological footprint of agriculture, and animal welfare. For example, cultivated meat has been estimated to require up to 95% less land, 78% less water and result in 92% less global warming, when compared to conventional beef.

Reaching these figures will require cultivated meat production to scale from the bench to commercial production, involving affordable, food-grade growth media, large scale cell cultivation and appropriate processing methods.

Role of microbiology

Microbiology offers a potential solution to the cost prohibitive nature of culture media, by producing recombinant versions of (for example) proteins otherwise obtained from animals, at an economically viable price-point. Microorganisms are also being used to produce flavour compounds, such as animal fats, with a goal to enrich the flavour of cultivated products.

The industry is, however, in its infancy, and many challenges need to be overcome before we see cultivated meat on supermarket shelves. A recent Nature Food article found that the challenges facing the protein transition include consumer acceptance, technological issues around scale-up, and the lack of appropriate regulatory or policy frameworks.

Notable successes

Notwithstanding these challenges, the industry has seen a few notable successes. In 2020, Singapore became the first country to sell cultivated products in select restaurants, in the form of Eat Just’s chicken nuggets.

Other countries are working with the industry, with the U.S Food and Drug Administration providing UPSIDE Foods with positive feedback in their first pre-market safety consultation in 2022. January 2023 also saw Aleph Farms, an Israeli company, given a preliminary green light from health officials to sell cultivated (beef) steaks.

CC-BY_Mosa Meat_burger-1_credit Mosa Meat

Source: Mosa Meat

However, cultivating meat also faces criticism. In a recent note to the Council of Ministers of the EU (5469/24), the Austrian, French, and Italian delegations raised their doubts, and called for more stringent regulation. Among their concerns, the authors list several key areas they believe require more clarity, including the safety and sustainability of these products.

However, the note contained several inaccuracies and ignores substantial evidence pointing towards the sustainability and potential of cultivated meat. The note also comes off the back of a recent bill passed in Italy prohibiting the production and marketing of cultivated meat, with a similar bill introduced in France.

Pivotal moment

This could be a pivotal moment for cultivated meat, as the regulatory landscape has the potential to influence the flow of resources into the industry, and willingness to support its growth. A comparison could be drawn to genetically modified (GM) food crops, with apathy and resistance towards their commercialisation seen across Europe since the late 1990s.

Current regulation sees some GM crops and cultivated meat products regulated under the same Novel Foods Regulatory Framework, with a high bar for food safety. A recent review of this framework in the UK highlighted the difficulties in regulating novel products, as the pace of innovation increases and food business demographics shift.

Research and development

Ultimately, to answer the questions posed by the above nations will require extensive research and development. As cultivated meat companies vie to produce market-ready products and gain regulatory approval, we will better understand the potential of this industry.

Key technological advancements in cell culture media, bioreactor design, and cell line development could all fundamentally alter current hypotheses offered in the academic literature. What is becoming clearer, is that cultivated meat is unlikely to ever fully replace traditionally farmed meat, but rather complement its offering.

European member states now have an opportunity to embrace cultivated meat and support companies working towards scale-up and commercialisation. With an open stance towards this technology, we can better understand the safety of cultivated products, their potential to improve human, animal and planetary health, and their place in the market.

Dr Jake Bell is a Research Scientist with Multus Biotechnology Limited and is chair of Applied MIcrobiology International’s Food Security Scientific Advisory Group.