The future of ethical eating is here - it’s just not on supermarket shelves yet. Cultured meat is a method of protein production that is more sustainable, nutritious, healthier, and animal welfare-conscious.
We need Canadian regulators to clearly signal that they will facilitate a regulatory environment that will inform go-to-market strategies for cellular meat companies that are creating meat products in a lab.
Back in December, San Francisco-based Eat Just received regulatory approval from the Singapore Food Agency to include their meat, which is created from animal cells, as an ingredient in chicken nuggets. This is the world’s first regulatory approval for a cultivated meat product. In the US, the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration announced plans to jointly oversee the production and labelling of cell-based meat in 2019. Last September, non-profit Cellular Agriculture Canada (CAC) - a group of entrepreneurs, scientists, and others who are interested in the concept of growing food from cells - released a regulatory white paper for cultured food products in Canada. It seems that the pandemic has halted any progress on this file. These development delays hurt competition and inhibit innovation.
In contrast, plant-based meat substitutes like the Impossible Burger are becoming increasingly popular and familiar since they became available to shoppers in 2016 after years of research and development. Cell-based meat substitutes seem like a natural next step, and we’ll want to have Canadian firms as early entrants to this new market.
The Good Food Institute has been advocating for the term “cultivated meat,” and previously championed “clean meat.” Sometimes referred to as a “protein analogue” or “non-animal protein,” “cell-based” or “cultured” meat (also sometimes called “clean meat” or “in vitro meat”) is a promising early-stage technology that is similarly synthetic. But these innovations are inherently inhibited by regulatory uncertainties that extend far beyond what should they be called and how they should be labelled?
Innovators, scientists, academics and researchers need regulators to work in concert with them to forecast a regulatory process, set a reasonable schedule for approvals, and catalyze opportunities for piloting of cell-based meat in order to co-create a safe market for these food products.
In all, this is a unique opportunity for policymakers to work closely with - if not directly alongside - innovators.
The regulatory pathway to bring cell-based meat to shoppers necessitates dialogue and collaboration. The naming of these new meat products is just the surface. Understanding and communicating the nutritional value of this novel food product is dependent on the structures of the proteins and other elements such as…fats. Both innovators and regulators want to ensure safety and shelf-stability of these new food products and care about things like: how do they react when refrigerated, how long do they stay fresh when frozen?
It is important for these considerations to be previewed and co-developed with the scientists developing these new products in order to inform development timelines and effectively manage limited funding.
In a vacuum, innovators assume all of the risk and could burn through their runway without any way to properly plan for what a go-to-market strategy could look like.
Regulators also need to care about different aspects of the production of cell-based meat. For instance, before the cultivation is made in a laboratory, two other media are needed: the culture, which is food for cells (this product is often co-developed between academics and start ups) and the other is the course of the cell, which could be from a biopsy from an animal. This implicates many ministries that may not be used to working together and lack established collaborative norms like: Environment and Climate Change Canada and Health Canada, with contributions from the CFIA Consumer Protection and Market Fairness Division.
There is also a role for large meat companies to play in achieving regulatory approvals and creating a clear market pathway for culture meat.
Perhaps Maple Leaf foods is interested in supporting smaller food innovators, as they offer plant-based solutions such as burgers, vegan cheese, and sausage options. It is not clear whether they are experimenting with cultivated meat products. A major player like Maple Leaf Foods could share a portion of their sophisticated production lines to help with packaging and distribution. As it stands, it is nearly impossible for emergent players to work together. Large meat companies may also have venture capital wings, further contributing to the leadership opportunity for the food industry to co-produce these new products in an effort to promote competition and avoid monopolization by default.
Some have speculated that COVID-19’s disruption to global supply chains could spur a faster transition to cell-based meat. In order to support this transition, we also need to bring down exorbitant production costs, demonstrate safety to regulators and build trust with consumers. There are a range of Canadian startups ready to take on these challenges, like: Edmonton-based Future Fields, Appleton Meats in Vancouver , Calgary-based Seafuture Sustainable Biotech, Toronto-founded Because Animals (they are now headquartered in the US and sell pet food) and Hamilton’s CaroMeats. In fact, it is widely speculated that Canada lost Toronto-based New Harvest to the US due to the company’s regulatory inertia.
Finally, there is also the central question of what animal protein is or can be - without animals. Industry groups like the Cattlemen’s Association oppose the moniker of “meat,” preferring alternatives like “artificial muscle proteins.” But this opportunity is about so much more than just semantics.
Science time: In order for cell-based meat to become a commercially viable industry, tissue needs to be grown efficiently at scale, straddling biomedical and agricultural research. Investing in cellular-agriculture research and entrepreneurship is part of the potential for biotechnology to be a plank of the country’s economic recovery strategy; which should incorporate calls for more open science and public investment in the pre-competition space.
Taking our lead entirely from the US means that Canadian companies will be on the back foot when it comes to bringing their cell-based products to the market, squandering this moment’s opportunity to pilot and incubate with interim standards.
A first step could be the creation of a regulatory sandbox to play with cell-based meat’s powerful potential.
Vass Bednar is the Executive Director of McMaster University’s new Master of Public Policy in Digital Society Program.