26th Feb 2024


Why your next meat dish may have been nowhere near an animal

  • Good Meat chicken is real meat. This cell-based meat or cultivated meat, as the industry prefers to call it, is created by taking cells from animals, placing them in a bioreactor (like a microbrewery) to create real meat (Photo: Eat Just)
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Plump sun-dried tomatoes, springy pasta and crispy chicken… To the uninitiated, this looked like a regular bistro dish, but what's different about this bowl of pasta, is that the chicken didn't originate from a farm, but a lab. Huber's Butchery in the upmarket enclave of Dempsey, Singapore, is the first butcher in the world to sell cultivated meat.

Today I was getting a glimpse of the future. On 19 December 2020, the Singaporean government gave the US company Eat Just approval to sell cultivated meat to the public. Eat Just's Good Meat chicken has been served at hotels, private members' clubs and street food stalls, but by serving it at this bistro, this is the first time it has been sold by a butcher.

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  • The Good Meat factory (Photo: Eat Just)

Chef Chong Jun Xiang, who worked at the private members club 1880 in Singapore, is now tasked with introducing this next generation ingredient to diners. The R&D chef is usually working at a kitchen in Bedok above Eat Just's manufacturing facility, but today he is whipping up a vegetable orecchiette topped with crispy cultivated chicken in the kitchen of Huber's bistro ready for me to test.

This ingredient is so rare it was enough to make one New York chef take a 19-hour flight to Singapore to try it. In the short time Good Meat chicken has been on sale in Singapore, it has already gone through three iterations — a spongy looking chicken nugget, a larger more fibrous piece of chicken and now the chicken is three times the size, with the same fibrous meat you would find on a chicken thigh.

When Chong presented me with the dish, the pasta was al dente, the sundried tomatoes and broccoli gave the dish a punch of colour, and the sliced deep-fried chicken had a golden outer layer.

When I cut it with a knife, the fibres tore apart like farmed chicken, and when I first tasted it, I could have been fooled that this was like any farm chicken I'd eaten. There was an aftertaste, but if this is what Good Meat has achieved in this small amount of time, who knows where it will be in even 12 months?

The reason why it tasted like real meat, is because it is. Chong said he had as many questions as anyone else when he was told about cell-based meat. "Initially I was sceptical, [but] when you understand how it's made it really is just a piece of chicken," said Chong.

Unlike brands such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, which create plant-based alternatives, Good Meat chicken is real meat. This cell-based meat or cultivated meat, as the industry prefers to call it, is created by taking cells from animals, placing them in a bioreactor (like a microbrewery) to create real meat.

Some may baulk at the idea of meat originating in a lab, but the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has given its backing by naming it as a key way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in food production. Researchers at Oxford University found that cultured meat uses 99 percent less land, 96 percent less water and 45 percent less energy to produce than conventional meat.

Singapore's citizens are already enjoying this 21st-century food, and it looks like the United States could be the next as the US Food and Drug Administration declared that it was safe for consumption. While cultured meat can't yet be sold in Europe, it is a hot topic in Brussels. In May the European Food Safety Authority hosted an academic conference focused on assessing the risks of cell-based food.

It was in Europe the first cell-based dish was created. In 2013, professor Mark Post of Maastricht University, Netherlands, unveiled a hamburger that had been created in a lab. The €250,000 price tag stopped the five ounce hamburger from immediately featuring on menus, but it showed it could be done. It paved the way for brands such as Eat Just, whose chicken dishes sell in Singapore for a more palatable SGD$18 [€12.20].

While European companies can't yet sell cultured meat to the public, it hasn't slowed the continent's rate of investment. While the United States is the biggest investor in cell-based food (€1.54bn), followed by Israel (€537.91m), the Netherlands comes in third spending €140.45m, and the UK and France are also in the top 10.

Cultured meat companies working on everything from cell-based fish sticks to foie gras are also launching across Europe, waiting for legislation to change.

There's Bluu Seafood from Germany, which is creating cell-based fish sticks; Gourmey from Paris creating cell-based foie gras; and Mirai from Switzerland, which is focusing on beef. Dutch companies Meatable and Mosa Meat (where Mark Post now works) are working on pork and beef.

In preparation for cell-based meat being sold in Europe, Mosa Meat has also not only launched the world's largest cultivated meat facility in Maastricht, Netherlands, but joined with partners in Singapore. Maarten Bosch, Mosa Meat CEO said: "The ability to produce our beef on two continents will also reduce the carbon footprint associated with shipping meat across the globe."

As a small island-state, Singapore can pivot faster than most countries. But as it imports 90 percent of its food, food security has long been on its radar. The pandemic couldn't have helped but give it a sharper focus and the country has set itself the goal of producing 30 percent of its food by 2030, which means that is has become a hub for food tech.

For cultivated meat to be successful, the Singaporean public needs to be on board. A YouGov survey in 2018 found that while 51 percent of Singaporeans said they probably wouldn't eat artificial meat, a third of millennials said they would happily consume it. Yet, two months after Good Meat started selling cultivated chicken in Singapore, Singaporean cell-based shellfish company Shiok Meats surveyed the public in March 2021, and found that 78 percent of Singaporeans said they were open to eating cell-based seafood.

To remove the 'yuk' factor associated with cell-based food, Eat Just founder Josh Tetrick said that the best is to get people to try it. Tetrick is choosing to make a small loss on each $18 dish that he sells, just so he can get it into the hands of consumers.

Tetrick disrupted the food industry with a plant-based egg, but he said that with so many meat-eaters, you need cultured meat as well to really move the needle. "Plant-based meats have done a really solid job of getting tens of millions of consumers to move from conventional to something that is a lot better. But we really think that is a ceiling to plant-based meat. I really wish I didn't believe that, but I do," said Tetrick.

While cell-based meat is impressive, UK-based dietitian Meaghan Greenwood said that cell-based meat may not contain everything that we need for human health. "It may be missing some of the essential fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins [that are] important for human health," said Greenwood. "As the technology for producing cell-based meat continues to develop, it is likely that any nutritional differences between cell-based and conventional meat will be minimised."

Andre Huber, executive director of Singapore's Huber's Butchery has followed Good Meat's journey from the start. It wasn't until the second-generation Swiss butcher tasted the third version of the cultivated chicken, he agreed to sell it in his restaurant. "The texture [of the nugget] was too mushy. It wasn't as fibrous as chicken. But the latest version is almost 90 percent like real chicken," said Huber.

Huber hopes that cultivated chicken will work alongside conventional meat and people in the future can use both in their diet. "We are selling it once a week [in the bistro] and going to ramp it up to twice a week," said Huber. "Hopefully, when the new factory is ready and churning out the orders, we might sell it over the butcher counter as well."

While Eat Just's plans are big, the supply is holding them back. Huber's bistro only has enough stock to serve a handful of diners. When the Singapore facility opens, it is expected to produce tens of thousands of pounds a year of meat, but this still won't be enough to service a population of 5.9 million people that has chicken rice as one of its national dishes.

Though something needs to be done for a global population that is expected to rise from eight billion to 9.5 billion by 2050, said professor Benjamin Horton of the Earth Observatory of Singapore.

"By 2050, 70 percent more food will be needed to fulfil the demand of the growing population [and] as a consequence, more efficient ways of protein production must be developed to sustain the growing global population," said Horton. "Cultured meat is a sustainable alternative for consumers who want to be more responsible, but do not wish to change the composition of their diet."

This article first appeared in EUobserver's magazine, Alt-Protein: Eating away climate change?, which you can now read in full online.

Author bio

Claire Turrell is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Singapore. Her work has been published by Insider, National Geographic, The Guardian and BBC.

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