At the beginning of April, the FAO presented a report entitled "Food safety aspects of cell-based food" to establish safety standards for cell-based proteins.
With more than 100 companies, including Israel's Aleph Farms, Holland's Mosa Meat and the UK's Higher Steaks Ltd., active in the future market of animal-free synthetic meat, fish, etc., the FAO is seeking a proactive dialogue with potential consumers about the new, presumably climate-friendly technology for vegan meat and fish production.
The information booklet is also intended to arouse acceptance – and curiosity even among die-hard sausage and meat consumers – for the supposedly sustainable products. The FAO and its partner, the WHO, see the guarantee of food safety of Novel Foods as central to growing consumer acceptance.
The initiative comes at a time following the first product approvals in Singapore in 2000, where market approval is granted particularly fast for Novel Foods. Model calculations suggest that cell-based production offers many advantages over intensive animal farming, after having been scaled up. In addition to faster production in cell culture reactors modelled on brew kettles, animal welfare is also likely to be an important selling point - cell-based protein production only requires a blood sample or muscle biopsy to remove the reproducible muscle stem cells, which are multiplied and then texturised or spun as a fibre to resemble meat as closely as possible to the original. In addition, reactor production saves significant amounts of climate-relevant CO2 emissions, artificial fertilisers and farmland compared to factory farming.
However, there are also concerns and fears of the "unnatural", synthetic way to produce cell-based meat, similar to those in the anti-GMO scene. "This FAO report is a step towards the international standards we felt were necessary when we introduced cultured meat to the world in 2013," Marc Post, founder and CEO of Mosa Meat, commented on the publication. "The FAO Panel of Experts has [...] identified areas where safety risks in the production of cultured food can be assessed and addressed" said Post, himself a member of the expert panel. "We have also assessed unscientific scenarios that are popular with opponents of cellular agriculture, and classified them as so unlikely that they do not merit further discussion. The food safety risks of cultured meat are similar to those of conventional meat, and they can be contained through proper handling and testing as with conventional meat.
"According to the 23 experts from 15 countries who spent three and a half days in Singapore late last year discussing food safety, there are various stages in the production process where contamination can take place. These are summarised in the report, which will be enriched by case studies from Singapore, Israel and Qatar by the middle of the year. It provides literature and insights on cell-based food production and the global landscape, as well as those on legal frameworks for cell-based food production in different nations.
The report is also intended to enable food and regulatory authorities in countries where research is weak to stay abreast of the state of the art. Furthermore, the fact that soy and gluten can be associated with allergies is well-documented, but arguably less the focus of the FAO publication, which initially emphasises the opportunities of cell-based protein products. Longer-term risks, as recently observed with ultraprocessed plant-based protein alternatives, are not to be noted here, but create awareness for future development goals.