Cultivated meat – talk of the table

What exactly is cultivated meat? And will we see it in our stores soon?

February 20, 2024
Naomi Barry
Scientist holding Petri dish with raw cultured meat in laboratory
February 20, 2024
Naomi Barry

Now I must confess, I hadn’t heard much about cultivated meat and wasn’t too sure about its potential, until I attended a talk by Charles Banks from thefoodpeople at IFE last year, where he outlined emerging and disruptive technologies in the food and drink industry to create alternative sources of protein.  Since then, there have been rumblings in the media and industry about the impact of this new technology, along with much debate as to its future in the UK, as currently cultivated meats are not approved for sale by the FSA.

But just what is cultivated meat, I hear you ask?  While it might not be the most consumer-friendly sounding term, according to McKinsey, the process is best described by taking cells from an animal and allowing them to replicate in a bioreactor. The resulting muscle and fat cells are then transformed into well-known formats, like steak or nuggets, using plant proteins to add structure. 

Just this month, British institution Fortnum and Mason announced a partnership with Oxfordshire based Ivy Farm Technologies to develop the world’s first scotch egg containing cultivated sausage meat (with a nod to the company having launched its ‘meat’ original almost 300 years ago). 

With product samples served up for an industry panel and journalists, the company though said it has no plans to actually sell the world first product.  Speaking to New Food magazine the team said: “Fortnum’s has always embraced innovation, but our recently opened Food & Drink Studio allows us to truly place ourselves at the heart of conversation and discovery. It has been fascinating to examine what the future of meat production might look like by bringing together voices from the world of technology, agriculture and hospitality, and experimenting with such cutting-edge science.”

But it’s not just Fortnum’s and Ivy Farm exploring the category; in 2022, the UK cultivated meat sector received a boost with £61m of new funding (5x that of 2021), leading the way in Europe, with the rest of the region raising a combined £45m.  This signals a real opportunity for the UK to get ahead of the competition in the production of alternative proteins – which we know is a topic taking centre stage again.  Other companies leading the cultivated foods movement in the UK include Hoxton Farms, crafting cruelty-free, sustainable fats to combine with plant protein to create meat alternatives.

While it’s reported that the PM himself backs the tech advancement, the future of cultivated meat in the UK is a huge unknown.  Globally though, lab-grown products are approved for sale – in Singapore, the US and Israel, meaning perhaps it’s not too distant a development at home.

CEO of Ivy Farm, Rich Dillon, said in his recent The Grocer article that: ‘The FSA is seeking to fast-track and green-light novel foods, which is an indication the UK is getting serious about its role in alternative proteins – and specifically the cultivated meat revolution’.  But, Natasha Smith, of the Food Standards Agency, said industry demands for “rapid approval processes” must be balanced with “protecting public health”.

We know that there are many pressures on the agri-food industry to reduce its impact on the planet, while also producing healthy food for a growing population.  Here, cultivated foods could have a huge role to play in offering the disruptive tech needed to accelerate food production and availability, to meet need and demand for more environmentally positive food (when safe to do so!) – but we’re sure it won’t be without its challenges.  Aside from the regulations we already know about, it’s a hugely expensive production method, and with the current economic climate, along with questions from industry and undoubtedly consumers, if (and once) it hits the real mainstream, this new category would certainly have an interesting journey ahead.