Eat Just's Josh Tetrick on Why Singapore is Betting on Cultured Meats
The alternative protein industry, which includes cell-based and plant-based companies, has been mushrooming over the last few years spurring a movement to change the way we eat. The products may be different but their collective goal is to repair our broken food systems and achieve a more sustainable future by reducing global meat consumption and replacing them with other protein-rich solutions.
Food security is a precarious issue especially in Singapore where arable land is scarce and produce is generally imported. However, the government is strategically focusing on producing 30 per cent of the population’s nutritional needs by 2030 through an innovative route. With scores of industry experts, like-minded investors, and an open-minded dining scene, Singapore offers a promising ecosystem for the following food tech companies to thrive and launch their global crusade to change how food is made, distributed and consumed right here on our shores.
In December 2020, Singapore became the first country in the world to grant approval of the sale of cultured chicken—meat produced by in vitro cell culture of animal cells. The “chicken bites”, produced by San Francisco-based food company Eat Just, are now on the menu in the city state, with other countries worldwide expected to follow suit soon.
According to Josh Tetrick, the co-founder and CEO of Eat Just, the approval process took two years in total. Within weeks of getting regulatory approval, its cultured chicken, made from animal cells without having to slaughter chicken, saw its first commercial client in Singapore private members’ club, 1880.
Eat Just is a key player in the global billion-dollar alternative protein industry. Entrepreneurs in the space say they are driven by the determination to reverse the negative impacts of the traditional meat industry on animals, farmers and the planet. When Tetrick started the company (then known as Beyond Eggs) with his co-founder, Josh Balk, in 2011, they focused on the most consumed animal protein in the world: chicken eggs.
(Related: Are You Ready for Singapore’s First Plant-Based Whole Egg Substitute OnlyEg?)
Under the Just Egg brand, the pair developed a non-GMO, cholesterol-free alternative to scrambled eggs, using mung bean as the key ingredient. Since launching in the US in 2019, the number of Just Egg bottles sold is the vegan equivalent of some 80 million chicken eggs.
According to Eat Just’s Impact Report 2020, this translates into several positive impacts on the environment, such as saving 1.48 billion gallons of water and 2,435 acres of land that would have been used to rear chickens, and a reduction of nearly six million kilograms in carbon emissions.
With the history-making regulatory approval of its cultured chicken in Singapore, Tetrick is making the country the base for Eat Just’s Asian hub, and possibly home to its global manufacturing hub in the future.
The American entrepreneur discusses Asia’s appetite for cultured meat, the common misconceptions surrounding the product, and how cultured meat could help prevent the next pandemic.
How big of a milestone is this first regulatory approval?
Josh Tetrick (JT) For the longest time, people thought about cultured meat as science fiction, as something that might materialise in some distant future. It’s been talked about as being “lab-grown”, and this label was accurate until we came around and Singapore gave our meat clearance.
The regulatory approval is a significant milestone for the industry because now our chicken can be stored in a walk-in freezer in a restaurant in Singapore, rather than in a lab. It can be manufactured in a larger manufacturing environment, rather than in a lab. It is now going to be consumed by Singaporeans visiting a restaurant with their friends and family, instead of only by me and my scientists in a lab. It represents a mindset shift from what we thought would happen maybe in 50 years’ time to it happening now.
(Related: 9 Best Sustainable Stores and Grocers in Singapore)
What is the production process of cultured meat like?
JT We first obtain the animal cells and use different techniques to do so, including obtaining the cells from a cell-culture bag or a fresh piece of meat. We then identify a combination of nutrients to feed the cells. The third major step is to move the cell to a larger steel vessel, similar to how beer is being brewed in a microbrewery. This is when the cells multiply and meat is being manufactured, and it all happens in a clean, sanitary environment.
Cultured meat might be an answer to one of the biggest fears the coronavirus has triggered—infectious diseases transmitted from non-humans to humans. Is that true?
That’s right. Zoonotic diseases such as the coronavirus don’t happen by accident. They happen because of what we do. These include cramming animals into tiny spaces, disrupting natural habitats and stacking cages on top of each other in wet markets. Our approach of producing meat mitigates the probability of zoonotic disease outbreaks entirely because the conditions that allow them to emerge are no longer there.
What are some misconceptions about cultured meat you would like to debunk?
JT Number one: that cultured meat is genetically modified. We don’t genetically modify or engineer our meat at all. Two: cultured meat will never be at the cost of conventional meat. The fact is any new category is going to be expensive at first because you haven’t yet got a large enough production scale. But as you make more of it, the cost comes down. Eventually, I believe our cultured meat will be at a lower cost than conventional meat.
Final misconception: the cultured meat industry is harming farmers in the traditional meat industry. The fact is these farmers can reorient themselves around this new kind of production. For example, we work with a group of Wagyu beef farmers in Japan to produce a cultured Wagyu beef product.
What does the future of cultured meat look like to you?
JT I think cultured meat is going to have a lower cost than conventional meat. It’ll continue to taste as good, if not better, in the future. You’re also going to have significantly less food safety issues as the industry develops. And you’re going to have more humans seeing what they’re putting in their bodies and what it means to their health. And because of all that, my fixation is ensuring that by the time my two-year-old niece enters high school, the vast majority of chicken, beef or pork won’t require killing a single animal.