Since Singapore’s green light for cultured meat in 2020, we’ve seen two more countries get the legal go-ahead (US and The Netherlands) and progress is underway in other areas of the world too, with the UK seeing its first cultivated meat application submitted for approval in 2023.
R&D tax relief specialists, GovGrant, anticipates that by 2040 cultured meat will make up 35% of global meat consumption, with conventional meat accounting for 40% and vegan meat alternatives the remaining 25%. While a 2021 prediction from Barclays suggested alternative meat will grow tenfold in the next decade reaching $140bn (£110.53bn) globally, with cultured meat becoming available in retail.
We’ve seen some significant investments across the globe into this ‘new age meat’ too, with the States claiming top spender at £1,360.24m. Israel is second at £474.59m, The Netherlands third at £123.92m, Singapore fourth at £100.67m, and the UK fifth at £28.55m.
Consumers concerns over cultured meat
But whilst there has been sizable progress within cultured meat production, cost-effective scaling-up is still a challenge in Britain.
“Focused attention is needed to address this,” Eris Duro, senior consultant at R&D consultancy Sagentia Innovation, said.
“Manufacturers are expected to extend their use of digital twins and simulation as they look to enhance performance and increase yield,” he offered as an example. “The inherent variability of biological systems becomes more pronounced and difficult to control at scale. However, computational fluid dynamic modelling helps overcome challenges that hinder reliable, repeatable and cost-effective mass production. Simulation can also accelerate the testing of critical parameters, such as temperature, pH, or nutrient concentration.
"It's three years since Singapore approved cultured chicken meat. The US Department of Agriculture granted the production and sale of cultured meat for two companies in 2023. Newform Foods recently announced plans to open a cultured meat demonstration facility in South Africa. These cumulative developments point towards 2024 being a pivotal year for cultured meat production.
"Innovative companies that harness the tools and technologies to facilitate scaled production have an opportunity to capture the market."
However, whilst novel food requirements are robust from a safety and quality perspective, they may not go far enough to convince consumers, warned Mariko Kubo, head of global regulatory at Leatherhead Food Research.
In a September 2023 survey of 7,500 adults across six countries, Leatherhead found that even in Singapore where cultured chicken meat is already on sale, 35% of consumers don’t feel they have enough information on the benefits of lab grown meat. Furthermore, 36% of the respondents from this region expressed a lack of information around its safety.
The findings also found that as many as 20% of adults in the UK were keen for 'heavy regulation', stating that they would feel safer eating cultured meat if this were the case. This was compared to 16% of US adults and 25% of adults in Singapore.
“We can expect significant, and potentially quite varied, regulatory developments in this space,” stated Kubo on the future status of cultured meat approvals around the globe. “Italy passed a bill banning the production and marketing of cultured meat in November 2023, but the US Department of Agriculture seems to be more permissive. We might see further developments and divergence during 2024.”
Progression in Europe with new age meats and taking on climate change
Sharing his thoughts from a UK perspective, Compleat Food Group’s Matthew McAuliffe, innovation and product development director, said: “Lab grown meat has been an emerging category for some time, and since 2018, each new year has always been heralded as the year it will finally breakthrough – and it hasn’t yet.
“However, the technological breakthroughs continue, costs are coming down and the legislative process behind these types of products is underway, but whether it’ll reach supermarket shelves in 2024 is still debatable."
The main driver behind alternative proteins has, for the most part, been climate change - but for McAuliffe it's not the ultimate solution.
“Even so, it’s not going to be the answer to feed a growing population. At Compleat, we are working to adopt the principles of the LiveWell diet, an evolution of the EatWell diet released by WWF earlier this year. This guides people towards making healthier choices, which also help cut emissions and reduce biodiversity loss. It will deliver what I call ‘stealth sustainability’. This includes eating more beans, vegetables, more sustainable seafood like mussels and getting 50% of our protein from plants.”
And whilst others will disagree with McAuliffe's thoughts on climate change and lab grown, there are also those working on further alternatives within new age ingredients (including meats) - namely fermentation-enabled ingredients such as precision fermentation and biomass fermentation.
Precision fermentation is much more closely aligned to traditional fermentation which has been used in beer making, for example, for years, rather than cultured meat which relies on ‘harvesting’ the animal cells. Biomass fermentation on the other hand, employs high-protein content and speedy growth of microorganisms to make large amounts of protein-rich food.
In Germany, Microharvest is hoping to be among the first biotech companies operating in the agrifood tech sector to bring a product to market.
"Our technology harnesses biomass fermentation from selected microorganisms to produce protein ingredients with applications along the whole protein value chain. Our first product, which has already been announced and will hit markets at the beginning of 2024, is a single-cell ingredient dedicated to the aquaculture market," Katelijne Bekers, co-founder and CEO at Microharvest, commented.
"Many people are unaware that a staggering 13 million tons of fish are caught annually to produce fishmeal for aquaculture, but also for example in pet food, perpetuating a highly unsustainable cycle. At MicroHarvest, we offer a transformative solution by directly substituting animal-based protein with ingredients boasting over 60% raw protein, vitamins and minerals. This alternative not only showcases an excellent amino-acid profile but also holds immense promise for enhancing the sustainability of fish production.
"Even more relevant in the context of the agrifood revolution, our ingredients can be produced within 24 hours from input to ingredient, using a fraction of the resources needed for commercially available animal-derived products.
"In the face of climate change and the inherent instability it brings to the farming industry, producing ingredients in a decentralised manner in bioreactors also offers a significant advantage in guaranteeing food stability. MicroHarvest’s biomass fermentation ingredients can be produced 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in every climate condition."
The business recently opened its pilot plant in Lisbon and has partnered with a co-manufacturer to enable it to begin production at scale.
"We are looking at going to market with our first product within months while continuing R&D to develop ingredients for the food and pet food segments," added Bekers.
"With 130 prime ministers recently recognising the critical role of food in the climate change issue at COP28 UAE, the question of what sustainable alternatives will hit markets in the foreseeable future has never been more relevant," commented Thomas Cresswell, chief business officer for Swedish company Melt&Marble, which is also investigating precision fermentation.
"Plant-based products have faced issues in the last year, and mostly the challenges associated with the sales velocity of these products relate to taste,” he said, whilst adding that if cultured meat could offer a solution, it’s still a long-way off wide commercialisation.
"Precision fermentation is a technology that could offer a solution,” he countered. “It is already utilised today in the food system for products like rennet and beer, yet its applications go well beyond.
"At Melt&Marble, we use precision fermentation to rewire the metabolisms of selected yeasts to produce the next generation of sustainable fats, that taste and behave like animal-derived fats.”
However, the road to regulatory approval is still a challenge here.
“Many European start-ups are looking at the USA for their market launch. The GRAS self-certification is much easier and more flexible to obtain compared to the lengthy process required for EFSA- the European regulatory body.
“There is a great market opportunity in Europe, and consumers are open and keen to try new sustainable products. We hope regulators will pivot to make the novel ingredients approval process for nascent technologies easier.”
Is hybrid the here and now?
For ADM’s Alica Humpert, savory EMEA & global protein marketing director, the near-future will be more about hybrid - a combination of plant-based with new-age solutions like precision fermentation or lab grown.
“Consumers are shifting their views on new protein sources and technologies, with many interested in learning more about what may be next in this space. As spotlighted in our global trends series for 2024, having an abundance of choice is a fundamental component of modern food culture, particularly in the protein and alternative protein space," she said.
“Consumers have made it clear they don't seek to replace current protein sources, but rather want to expand their protein choices, with roughly six in 10 global consumers showing interest in trying alternative proteins developed using newer technologies.”
ADM's research has found that, globally, flexitarians, vegetarians or vegans are more open to trying new protein options.
"These consumers place less importance on the specific protein source itself than they have in the past – pointing to new possibilities for novel sources and blends of protein ingredients to meet nutrition, taste, functional and sustainability needs.
“Hybrid solutions combining familiar sources, like soy or pea proteins, with new processes, like precision fermentation or cell cultivation, can help encourage consumer acceptance and adoption of expanded protein options.
“When we ask plant-forward consumers across the globe about their interest in more novel or next-generation science and technological advancements, they are most interested in trying products made with plant-based novel ingredients, followed by hybrid options (a combination of familiar and new technologies) followed by fermentation-derived sources.
“We predict hybrid options, which include plant proteins and fermentation-derived proteins, to be what’s next in alternative protein development. Fermentation-derived proteins show promising advancements, with many consumers recognising fermentation as a well-established food process."
She concluded: “Looking further ahead, cell-cultivated proteins are anticipated to be key in solving seemingly impossible challenges in taste, texture and nutrition in formats like steak, fish, cheese and more.”