Cell-cultured meat or cultivated meat is meat grown in a lab from animal stem cells, a process which poses no risk to animals. These cells are cultured, and their tissues modified into a product considered to be climate friendly.
The processes behind the production of cell cultured meat are continuously developing with key players in the growing global cultivated meat industry under pressure to ensure their product can be made in an efficient, safe and profitable way.
Singapore is ahead of the game in authorising cell-cultured meat and at present, it isn’t licensed for sale in either the UK or the EU. The UK and the EU have fairly similar regulatory frameworks in place, but there is an opportunity in a post-Brexit landscape for the UK to design a new regulatory approval process for authorising cell-cultured meat and other similar innovative food products.
Current UK regulatory position
Before cell-cultured meat is marketed in the UK it must be approved by The Food Standards Agency (FSA) as a “novel food” under Regulation (EU) 2015/2283 (as retained in UK law).
Approval requires the following criteria to be satisfied:
- no safety risks to human health (scientific evidence must be provided)
- transparency around the food’s intended use – this is particularly important when the food is a substitute for another food and impacts nutritional value
- if the novel food replaces another food type, it must not be nutritionally disadvantageous for the consumer.
It can take up to 17 months for an FSA novel food approval, as stated in their authorisation guidance. The guidance also references that the timeline can stop and re-start if further information is required, whilst the quality of the application will dramatically impact the time needed for assessment and authorisation.
Regulatory changes in a post-Brexit world?
The UK has autonomy to diverge from the EU-derived novel foods system. In January 2022, the UK Government published a policy paper entitled “The Benefits of Brexit: How the UK is taking advantage of leaving the EU” that outlines how the Government will work with the FSA to update the process for approving novel foods. In June 2022, the then Minister for Farming, Fisheries and Food, Victoria Prentis said that the FSA was using the freedoms of Brexit to review the novel foods regulatory framework, but as far as we are aware, that is the extent of the UK Government’s full public commitment at present to regulatory reform. It will be interesting to see in the future how this new or revised regulatory framework might look and the timescales for implementation.
Most recently the UK Government invested £12m in a new research centre called the Cellular Agriculture Manufacturing Hub which will run for 7 years and will research ways of growing cultivated meat at scale. Whilst this shows an intention to support the cultivated meat industry, there is very little information available about regulatory reform.
In our opinion, the main regulatory challenges facing the cell-cultured meat industry based on the current regulatory regime appear to be in connection to product labelling and safety.
The Food Information to Consumers Regulations, as retained in UK law, apply to cultivated meat products. Under these regulations, food information must not mislead, especially in respect of identity, composition, manufacturing methods or production. Cultivated meat producers must focus on the labelling of the product, ensuring the information on the label does not deceive the consumer.
We can already foresee issues arising in the future where messages conveyed are incorrect or could be disputed with a lack of supportive evidence. There is a question mark as to whether cultivated meat products should in fact be described as ‘meat’ or whether additional words should be included for complete consumer clarity. If cultivated meat is granted approval by the FSA, we expect that the FSA will introduce generic labelling conditions that would reflect all of the various production methods behind cell-cultured / cultivated meat.
There is also a question mark around whether those marketing cultivated meat products prefer the terms ‘animal free’ or ‘meat free’ which may technically be true, but could the process behind cell-cultured / cultivated meat mean that these descriptions are misleading? This could pose some challenges, especially due to the stark differences in production methods and sources of the animal stem cells.
If cultivated meat does become cheaper to produce than conventional meat, we would expect to see a rise in popularity of combined cultivated and conventional livestock meat products. This could cause a further headache when it comes to labelling, particularly in relation to the mislabelling of the proportion of cultivated to conventional meat.
Cell-cultured meat producers will be legally obliged to prove to the FSA that there aren’t any safety risks to human health through the consumption of their product. Full copies of all relevant scientific data, study reports and scientific opinions of national/international regulatory bodies must be supplied as part of their application. It is encouraging to know that Singapore has approved the sale of cultivated meat, but there is the caveat that scientific data and studies may not reflect new and emerging large scale production methods which may increase risks including those related to microbial and viral contamination. As a result, it may take a significant amount of time for the FSA approve new cell cultured meat products.
About the author:
Conor is a regulatory solicitor in our criminal, compliance and regulatory team. He advises clients on a broad range of regulatory disciplines including health and safety, product safety (including food safety and labelling), fire safety and consumer law across multiple sectors.
Having been a commercial paralegal and then a secondee to Experian plc’s EMEA General Data Protection Regulation remediation project, before qualifying into the regulatory team, he has extensive experience in advising corporate clients on risks, offering practical solutions and capitalising on commercial opportunities. He regularly provides practical advice to company board members and in-house legal teams.
On the contentious side, Conor has experience in defending clients subject to regulatory investigation and prosecution from the Health and Safety Executive, Food Standards Agency, local authorities and fire authorities. He is also a key member of our public inquiries team having supported the team representing a Core Participant on the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.
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