Happy Friday, and welcome to Food Fix! I’m sending today’s edition from Washington, Pa., where I’m visiting family for the Whiskey Rebellion Festival, which commemorates a formative chapter of American history.
Fun little family factoid: My grandfather stored the Christmas trees he sold in the former home of rebellion ringleader David Bradford. Though rundown at the time, the house has since been restored as a museum.
Food Fix around town: On July 12 I’m moderating a panel on food and nutrition security at the Universal Food Forum, hosted by Michigan State University. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is slated to appear in the afternoon with Ali Zaidi, White House national climate advisor. You can register here.
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Alright, let’s get to it –
Tasting what was once science fiction
This week the Dutch government reached an agreement that will allow consumers to taste cell-cultivated meat and seafood in certain circumstances – the first European country to do so ahead of regulators reviewing the products.
This is a big change. When I was in the Netherlands last week, it struck me that the U.S. had just approved cell-cultivated chicken the week prior, but here I was in the country that pioneered this technology and the products were still totally off limits.
If you’ve never heard of the Dutch researcher Willem van Eelen, the so-called godfather of cultivated meat, his story is worth a read. Van Eelen’s decades-long quest to grow animal cells for food was fueled in part by his experience of nearly starving as a prisoner of war during World War II.
The Netherlands was also home to one of the most publicized chapters of the cultivated meat saga: In 2013, Maastricht University professor Mark Post unveiled the world’s first cell-cultivated hamburger, a 5 ounce meat patty that reportedly cost $325,000 to grow at the time. (The project was funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin.)
Despite fueling so much buzz and innovation, the Netherlands isn’t going to be selling these products anytime too soon. This new government agreement, struck in collaboration with cell-cultivated meat companies Meatable and Mosa Meat and the biotech association HollandBIO, creates a “code of practice” that makes tastings possible in controlled environments if they are pre-approved by a panel of experts. Selling these products in the marketplace would require a European regulatory approval that is likely years away.
Regulatory recap: There are a couple reasons why it’s expected to take a while in Europe. For one, European regulators are known to be more cautious than their American counterparts. The European Union has a two-step process for approving novel foods. First, the products must undergo an extensive risk assessment from the European Food Safety Authority and then they must be authorized by the European Commission. This second step includes a vote by all 27 member states in the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed, also known as PAFF. That vote requires a 55 percent majority that also represents at least 65 percent of the EU population. (Not exactly simple!)
If the European Commission did authorize cell-cultivated meat, however, it would be an important signal to other governments, particularly in developing economies, who may trust Europe more than the U.S. It’s going to take a while, but the gears are about to begin turning: Netherlands-based Mosa Meat is expected to submit for approval this year, per Robert Jones, the company’s VP of global affairs.
Timelines, timelines: While I was in Amsterdam, I sat down with Ira van Eelen – daughter of the aforementioned cultivated meat pioneer Willem van Eelen – who is now a major advocate of the technology in her own right. Of course, being the pesky reporter I am, I wanted to know all about timelines: When will Europe go? When will you be able to sell it here? Can this ever scale? When? Certainly, much of the obsession over timelines comes from the tech hype machine, media’s obsession with things that seem like science fiction – and the fact that more than $2 billion in venture capital has poured into this space. And, as is so often the narrative out of Silicon Valley, it’s all been seen as a technological horse race.
Ira, however, seemed far less interested in the race mindset. She asked me if I knew about Cathedral Thinking – the concept that big, enduring things, like cathedrals, take multiple generations to build. (Not exactly the VC approach to return on investment.)
“I’m building a cathedral,” van Eelen told me, matter of factly. “I will probably not see the whole cathedral finished, which is OK. My father didn’t get to see it finished.”
Her father never got to taste cell-cultivated meat, but van Eelen is now getting to see the technology inch out of the realm of science fiction and into the realm of regulatory approval in the world’s largest economy. On Wednesday, van Eelen and son, Kick, were in Washington for a special dinner celebrating what would have been her father’s 100th birthday, hosted by José Andrés at China Chilcano. The menu: “Anticuchos de Pollo,” Peruvian chicken skewers made with cell-cultivated chicken from GOOD Meat. China Chilcano will officially debut the dish later this summer in limited quantities and by reservation only. (Remember, production at scale remains a big industry challenge.)
“I am grateful that a promise my father made decades ago has come true,” van Eelen said in GOOD Meat’s press release. “I’m so happy we can stop talking about it and go eat it, because tasting is believing.”
Technically speaking: While the media likes to focus on the tech race aspect, the industry’s ultimate success or failure will come down to decidedly unsexy things like production engineering challenges. It’s been a decade since Post’s $325,000 hamburger made headlines globally. Though the cost has come down exponentially since then, whether or not this will ever scale to be an affordable meat competitor is still very much an open question.
I recently wrote about one of, if not the biggest, pieces of the puzzle: Figuring out how to economically feed the finicky cells. (Other biggies include, is there even enough stainless steel to make this work? If not, what do you grow the cells in?) The Dutch government has committed $60 million Euros to help tackle some of these scale challenges – the money will fund research and help build a talent pipeline to work on these questions.
Major food and agriculture players are also jumping into the fray. Nutreco, a leading animal nutrition company based in the Netherlands, has invested in Mosa Meat and the seafood-focused BlueNalu. Earlier this year, Nutreco entered into agreements with both Mosa Meat and BlueNalu to work specifically on the cell feed challenges.
“Good feed has a tremendous impact on productivity, on animal health, on animal welfare,” Nutreco CEO Fulco van Lede told me last week on the sidelines of AgriVision, which the company hosts every two years. “Likewise with alternative proteins,” he added, “one of the very big hurdles to overcome is the cost of growth media.”
“I think the technology will work – it is working at a certain scale now – but if you really want to make this one of the solutions that the world can and probably should use, it is about texture, it is about taste and it is about cost, ultimately,” said van Lede.
Zooming out: With all of the recent news in this space, I turned to my dear friend and former colleague Chase Purdy, who wrote Billion Dollar Burger, to get his take on things.
“In case there were any doubts after it was approved for sale in Singapore, the edible space race to get cell-cultivated meat to market is over,” Purdy said. “I think the conversation has definitely shifted to which company will be the first to scale for broad consumption — and how sustainable it will actually be in the end.”
Purdy predicted that the industry will now consolidate, from hundreds of startups down to a few dozen major players. In the meantime, it’s going to be hard for a while to try these buzzy new products, whether in Washington or San Francisco – because there just isn’t much supply.
What I’m reading
House Oversight seeks more information from FDA on infant formula crisis (Congress). “Subcommittee on Health Care and Financial Services Chairwoman Lisa McClain (R-Mich.) is calling on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to make officials who have information relevant to the 2022 infant formula shortage available for transcribed interviews,” per the committee. “The more the Oversight Committee uncovers in our investigation into internal failures at the FDA which led our nation into an infant formula crisis, the more questions we have for the FDA,” said Chairwoman McClain. I asked FDA if they had a response to this and a spokesperson said: “The FDA has received the letter and will respond to the committee directly. The FDA remains committed to working in good faith with Congressional oversight efforts to provide information.”
Michelle Obama is on a mission to revolutionize what our kids eat (Oprah Daily). “Believe me, I know that this is a complicated issue,” writes Michelle Obama in this essay about the kids food company she co-founded, PLEZi Nutrition. “There’s no perfect solution that will work for every single kid, let alone millions of them. But my time as First Lady taught me that the food industry plays an outsize role in the fate of children’s health. And that’s why, after many years of trying to move the needle on this issue from the outside, I’m now working from the inside.”
Whose fault is obesity? Primarily the food industry’s (Washington Post). “A combination of factors created a Serena Williams of a food environment, and most of us don’t have the forehand for it,” writes food columnist Tamar Haspel. “Making matters worse, we have people pushing ineffective solutions that leave eaters confused and disempowered. For most of us, no tennis lesson (read: diet) on the planet will make us Serena-ready. Some 73 percent of Americans are overweight or obese, and if you come here often, you’ve heard me say this before: When three-quarters of humans can’t navigate the system successfully, the problem is the system, not the humans.”
U.S. animal industries pose disease risks to people, report says (New York Times). “The United States is home to an enormous array of animal industries — including industrial agriculture, fur farming and the exotic pet trade — that pose a significant risk of creating infectious disease outbreaks in humans, according to a new report by experts at Harvard Law School and New York University. Moreover, the nation ‘has no comprehensive strategy’ to mitigate the dangers posed by these practices, many of which operate with little regulation and out of public view, the authors concluded,” writes Emily Anthes. “The risk is staggering, because our use of animals is staggering,” said Ann Linder, the report’s lead author and research fellow at Harvard’s animal law and policy program. “And we don’t even really understand where that risk is.”
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