SINGAPORE: The Singapore Food Agency (SFA) has a set of guidelines to assess the safety of "novel foods" such as plant-based proteins and cultured or lab-grown meat, amid growing demand for meat substitutes.
Under the regulatory framework, which has been in place since November 2019, food businesses that intend to produce, import and sell novel foods are required to submit safety assessments of their products before they are allowed for sale.
Companies must report on a product’s toxicity, allergens and safety of its production method, as well as the materials used in the manufacturing processes and how they are controlled to prevent food safety risks.
"SFA will then review these safety assessments to ascertain that potential food safety issues have been addressed," the agency said on Wednesday (Dec 2), adding that it has put together an eight-member panel made up of food scientists and health experts to "rigorously" study the information provided.
Novel foods are defined as foods and food ingredients that "do not have a history of safe use", according to a document detailing the requirements by SFA, which drew its definition from guidelines in countries like Australia, Canada and Japan.
"A history of safe use is defined as substances that have been consumed as an ongoing part of the diet by a significant human population, for a period of at least 20 years and without reported adverse human health effects," SFA said.
"Novel foods may also include compounds that are chemically identical to naturally occurring substances, but produced through advances in technology," it added.
"The safety of novel food must be assessed before they can be allowed to be used in food for sale in Singapore," Dr Tan Lee Kim, SFA's director-general of food administration and deputy chief executive told the media.
Plant-based meats, such as those developed by Impossible Foods, are not considered novel foods as they are made of protein extracted from commonly consumed plants.
However, Impossible Burger contains an additive, soy leghemoglobin, that was not used in food production previously. SFA tested it and found it could be consumed safely.
SFA said it will not charge for the evaluations and that it would take between three and six months for a product to be examined.
Discussions on developing novel food regulations started in 2018 among SFA’s predecessor the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority, scientists and food businesses, SFA said.
A lab-grown chicken soon to make its global debut in Singapore was the first novel food product assessed under the guidelines.
Produced by American food technology start-up Eat Just, the lab-grown or cultured chicken is said to be the first cell-based meat item to enter the market worldwide.
The cultured meat will be used in the company’s chicken nuggets product.
The viability of meat substitutes has been gaining ground in recent years, as scientists see it as a way to address growing meat consumption amid an expanding global population, rising income levels and climate change.
Meat and seafood consumption in Asia is forecast to go up by 78 per cent by 2050 due to increasing urbanisation and wealth, according to a 2018 report by consultancy firm Asia Research & Engagement.
READ: Commentary: Eating less meat could help the environment and our health – so what’s stopping us?
Experts meanwhile have called for dietary habits to change amid sustainability concerns.
Last year, a report by the United Nations’ climate change body said that meat consumption must be cut to reduce burden on land and water resources, while suggesting the adoption of a diet based on plant-based food and possibly meat substitutes.
Early indications seem to show that investors are confident about the popularity of these new food creations.
In 2017, plant-based "meat" creator Impossible Foods announced that it had raised S$75 million in a funding round led by Temasek Holdings. Shares of its main rival, Beyond Meats, have more than doubled since it closed at US$66 on its first day of trading in May last year.
In Singapore, homegrown start-up and cell-based seafood maker Shiok Meats said in September that it had attracted US$12.6 million in series A funding. SEEDS Capital, the investment arm of Enterprise Singapore, was one of the shareholders to come on board.
The company, like other industry players, lauded the introduction of the regulations.
"It is excellent," its co-founder Dr Sandhya Sriram said. "Having clear guidelines is actually an advantage."
Ants Innovate's co-founder Ong Shujian said the guidelines will ensure that the production process is "transparent and proactive".
The cultured meat company is making two products - a meat snack and a frozen cutlet – which it expects to launch by the second half of next year, said Mr Ong. He added that seeing the first cultured meat product certified for sale has also boosted his company's "confidence" in getting its products endorsed as well.
Ms Elaine Siu, the managing director of The Good Food Institute Asia Pacific, a group that advocates plant-based and cultivated meat development, said the move is "a very big deal".
"Governments are interested in stopping the next pandemic, in keeping antibiotics working, and want to meet their climate obligations under the Paris Agreement," she said. "Other countries should be following Singapore’s lead by engaging in a thorough food safety regulatory process with companies that are at that stage of development."
Last year, the Singapore Government said it would pump in S$144 million in food research money under the Singapore Food Story R&D Programme.
A 2019 report by Barclays predicted that the global alternative meat market, currently valued at US$14 billion - or 1 per cent of the US$1.4 trillion meat industry - could be worth 10 times more at US$140 billion by 2029.