UK Agency wants to fast-track and greenlight lab-grown meat

by Jonathan Matthews | Apr 3, 2024

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) – the regulator responsible for food safety in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – is seeking to fast-track approval for lab-grown (“cultivated”) meat and synbio (“precision fermented”) food by slashing UK regulations surrounding novel food and feed products, as well as food additives. This will also involve less oversight for GMO foods.

As part of the regulatory streamlining, the FSA is proposing to fast-track novel food approvals by relying on other countries’ regulators. In the case of synbio food, this could see the FSA depending in particular on the judgements of regulators in the US, which has already approved several such products for sale and consumption. In the case of lab-grown meat, Israel and Singapore, as well as the US, have been the first to approve lab-grown products.

The FSA’s director, Rebecca Sudworth, justifies such dependence as avoiding pointlessly duplicating the work of “another trusted regulator”. And according to the UK food industry publication The Grocer, “The FSA and its counterpart north of the border, Food Standards Scotland, are drawing up a list of international collaborators to use in enabling products to hit UK shelves.”

Sham regulatory system promoting product acceptance – not safety

It seems certain the US will be high on the FSA’s list of “trusted” regulators, and that is bound to set alarm bells ringing not just in the UK, but in any other countries tempted to follow this model. That’s because it is widely acknowledged that the biotechnology industry has shaped US regulation of its products to an extraordinary degree.

According to a 2004 peer-reviewed study by William Freese and David Schubert, “The picture that emerges from our study of US regulation of GM foods is a rubber-stamp ‘approval process’ designed to increase public confidence in, but not ensure the safety of, genetically engineered foods.” Speaking more recently about the same issue, Freese described current GMO regulation in the US as “a critical part of our government’s promotion of the biotechnology industry. The aim is to quell concerns and promote acceptance of GMOs, domestically and abroad, rather than critically evaluate potential toxicity or allergenicity.”

Proactively supporting the industry

Is there any reason to think that US regulation of lab-grown meat and synbio food will be any less industry friendly than it is for GMO foods? There is nothing to suggest that. Indeed, when making the economic case for speeding up UK regulatory approvals of lab-grown meat, Rich Dillon, CEO of UK cultivated meat firm Ivy Farm Technologies, argued that if they didn’t, “The UK risks losing out to countries such as US, Singapore and Israel, who are proactively supporting this new industry.” Relying on regulators “proactively supporting” the industry means using an already compromised “approval process” to fast-track one’s own. And needless to say, the FSA’s actions are being seen in this light – as part of enabling the UK to join countries like the US as industry front runners. This explains hyped-up headlines, such as Can FSA shake-up make the UK a leader on lab-grown meat? and Cultivated meat could make the UK a food tech leader.

Dereliction of duty

US approvals may be good news for industry but they are failing to protect the public. In the case of a synbio milk that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) accepted as “generally regarded as safe (GRAS)” – the FDA’s weakest approval standard, where the product’s safety is essentially self-affirmed by its producer, tests showed that, despite being marketed as “identical to traditional dairy”, it contained a large number of unexpected substances that could potentially be allergenic or toxic. None of these 92 compounds are “GRAS” or have undergone any FDA testing, says Dr John Fagan, whose Health Research Institute lab in Iowa carried out the analysis.

The test results also showed the synbio milk had a significantly reduced or altered nutritional value compared to natural milk, despite being marketed as biologically identical.

As a result, Dr Fagan thinks synbio milk products should either have a risk warning on their packaging or be taken off the market, and that the FDA should not be granting such approvals without undertaking its own in-depth studies for food safety and nutritional quality.

Dr Michael Hansen of Consumer Reports has expressed similar concerns about how the FDA is failing to properly regulate lab-grown meats. He points out that lab-grown meats are products of new technologies and their impacts on the microbiome and epigenetics are completely unknown. He calls the lack of robust regulation for such products a dereliction of the FDA’s duty to protect the public.

Lab-grown meat companies waiting in the wings?

Apart from appeasing the techno-food lobby, another reason the FSA is undoubtedly running its own deregulation campaign is because it has been landed with far more responsibilities since the UK’s departure from the EU but has been given nowhere near enough funding to meet them. As a result, the FSA fears being overwhelmed by the number of novel product approval applications.

But in the case of lab-grown meat, that may never happen. According to The Grocer, when it comes to regulated products, the FSA says it currently has “more than 450 applications on its books, with companies waiting on average two-and-a-half years”. But so far, only two of those 450 applications are for lab-grown meat, while many of the applications are for novel foods such as insect products and “the growing wave” of CBD (cannabidiol) products. Nevertheless, the article optimistically adds, “It’s understood many companies are waiting in the wings with lab-grown meat products waiting to take advantage of a relaxation in red tape.”

One of the worst technology failures

But there are reasons for extreme scepticism about such a claim. In the US where regulations are already more relaxed, only two lab-grown products have so far gone through the approval process and, despite gaining approval, neither is currently available to buy. Steve Molino, a principal at Clear Current Capital, a plant-based and lab-grown meat venture capital firm, told WIRED that this was probably because the high costs of production meant they could only be sold at a loss.

In fact, the sector is so beset with problems that even Bill Gates – an early investor – has said of lab-grown meat, “I don’t know that that will ever be economical.” The MIT Technology Review went further and declared lab-grown meat one of the worst technology failures of 2023, while an equally damning recent article in the New York Times, based on interviews with almost 60 well-placed investors and industry insiders, called it The revolution that died on its way to dinner.

All of this is totally at odds with the exuberant biotech bubble enticements being used to encourage public investment and relaxed regulation.

Less oversight for GMOs

As part of its planned regulatory shake-up, the FSA also wants to get rid of the current requirement for 10-year re-approvals for genetically modified food and feed. The FSA says such reapprovals are clogging up its system and are getting in the way of approving new products. Making all UK GM product approvals unlimited from the start will remove this problem at a stroke. But these periodic re-approvals have provided a way of re-evaluating the validity of previous risk assessments of specific GM products in the light of any changes, new hazards, or scientific uncertainties that may have emerged since the initial market authorisation.

It also remains to be seen whether as well as dumping GMO reapprovals, the FSA will be using its list of “trusted” regulators to help it speed up new GMO food approvals. If so, then clearly industry is likely to first target for initial approval regulators in countries on the “trusted” list that most proactively support the industry, knowing that the UK will be inclined to rely on their favourable assessments.

Hollow pledges

The FSA’s director Rebecca Sudworth asserts that “Safety will always be at the heart of everything we do.” Likewise, the FSA board’s top two principles for the regulatory shake up are:
“1. We will protect public health. There will be no reduction in food safety or standards.
“2. We will protect consumer interests when making regulatory decisions.”

But such pledges ring hollow when the changes proposed are clearly about giving easier and faster access to the UK market for novel products that in some cases have never previously been part of our food supply.

Regulating such products to protect public health and consumer interests requires the careful strengthening of safeguards, not slashing regulations to assist the biotech industry in its race to market.

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1 month ago

So yeah, I am totally for this lab grown meat. The planet cannot continue to sustain the overpopulation of humans and the destruction of the planet for cattle based meat.

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