Lab-grown meat has a long way to go before mainstream acceptance in Singapore, experts


SINGAPORE: It was June 2022, and the lab-grown meat industry looked like it had a sizzling future. 

The largest cultivated chicken meat facility in Asia broke ground in Singapore, with a 30,000 sq ft complex at Bedok Food City, set to produce “tens of thousands of pounds” of meat a year. 

The company behind this audacious venture was US-based Eat Just, who had plans to sell lab-grown chicken meat under the label Good Meat. 

Eat Just representatives were joined by Singapore officials, including Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu, at the groundbreaking ceremony.

Indeed, in October 2022, the government announced it had set aside fresh funding of S$165 million (US$122 million) to accelerate R&D in sustainable urban food production, future foods, and food safety science and innovation. 

This was over and above an initial S$144 million of research funding in 2020. 

Singapore was also the first country to approve the sale of lab-grown meat, with Huber’s Butchery in Dempsey Hill being the only restaurant in the world selling lab-grown meat back in early 2023. 

But in two short years, the industry appears to be slowing down. 

In March this year, Eat Just put its lab-grown meat production at the Bedok facility on hold, the Straits Times reported. Huber’s Butchery stopped offering the product in December last year.

In the same month, it was reported that Singapore-based lab-grown seafood startups Shiok Meats and Umami Bioworks were merging. 

And it is not just here that the industry is slowing down. A New York Times article in February detailed the decline of the industry – one which had a bright start with investors pouring over US$3 billion into the industry between 2016 and 2022. 

However, a mix of unrealistic optimism from investors, followed by the realisation that the science behind the product could not match consumer demand for low prices and higher volumes of production, has left the entire industry in limbo. 

In Singapore, Shiok Meats co-founder Sandhya Sriram wrote an emotional LinkedIn post last May about the painful process of letting 50 per cent of her staff go in 2023, and the online abuse she endured in the process. 

She spoke about the enthusiasm investors and the media had for her planned product of lab-grown crustacean meat such as crab and lobster, but her company, like many other cultivated meat firms, soon met the perennial challenge of scaling production.

This challenge continues to confound her firm, she told CNA, but it is a challenge it has more confidence in tackling through the merger with Umami Bioworks. 

The Singapore Food Agency (SFA), the statutory board overseeing food safety and security, said Singapore remains an attractive location for cultivated meat startups. 

“Our proximity to the large Asia market and the robust food safety regulatory system also draw startups to establish their R&D and pilot manufacturing in Singapore,” said SFA in a joint response with Enterprise Singapore and the Economic Development Board to CNA’s queries. 

“The conducive environment here allows them to test their technology and demonstrate commercial viability of their products.” 

Despite the challenges, some cultivated meat firms are not backing down. Eat Just announced on Wednesday (May 15) that it will start selling a hybrid meat, using a lower-cost formulation with plant protein and just 3 per cent lab-grown chicken.

One expert believes that the successful scaling and production of lab-grown meat could be a matter of necessity as the current production of meat could become unsustainable in generations to come.

“The truth is that the livestock industry is not sustainable … we have to acknowledge this at one point, and so this science will go forward when (lab-grown meat) is globally accepted,” said Associate Professor Alfredo Franco-Obregon from the National University of Singapore (NUS) Institute for Health Innovation and Technology.

Assoc Prof Franco Obregon, who is in his 60s, said this mainstream acceptance may not even happen in his lifetime, but he thinks it is inevitable. 

“It will eventually be realised, because of the urgency of it.”  

INDUSTRY PLAYERS QUIETLY OPTIMISTIC 

Lab-grown meat companies here remain cautiously optimistic – and believe that the heyday of the cultivated meat industry is yet to come. 

Asked about their pause in production, a spokesperson from Eat Just, which the Good Meat label is under, said that it is still business as usual. 

Ms Carrie Kabat, director of global communications at Eat Just, said: “The pause is part of our normal operations since we began producing and serving in Singapore in 2020. We produce and pause, produce and pause.”

She said this is a “campaign-style approach” to producing lab-grown meat. 

Eat Just’s hybrid meat consisting of 3 per cent cultivated chicken meat went on sale at Huber’s Butchery on Thursday, priced at S$7.20 for a 120g package. 

Ms Kabat projected that in 2024, Eat Just will produce three times more product than any year before, adding that this is about 10 times what the rest of the cultivated meat industry has produced up to this point.



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