Tastings of cultivated foods now and tomorrow

Last month, the conference Regulating the Future of Foods took place in Barcelona,  gathered more than hundred professionals active in the fields of precision fermentation and cellular agriculture. The purpose of the conference was to define hurdles and investigate opportunities in the current regulatory framework applicable to this sector. Many interesting presentations took place discussing the global perspective of our future food system and AXON moderated a workshop targeting tastings of cultivated foods, formulating a number of conversation topics. In this blogpost, we share the outcome of the discussions that took place during this workshop.

Regulatory frameworks for tastings                                                               

Tastings of these products already took place, for instance in Israel. So far however only two countries have developed a legal framework for this purpose, notably Singapore and the Netherlands. In the tastings workshop, the procedure and the data requirements for setting up tastings in these countries have been explained, as you can see in the powerpoint inserted below. Furthermore, the following items were discussed.

1. Should the SGP / NL template become the blueprint for tastings or rather do this under the radar?

As follows from the comparison of the regulatory frameworks in Singapore and the Netherlands, these hugely overlap. Therefore, the question arose if these frameworks should become the blueprint for tastings in other countries. Kind Earth.Tech rightfully pointed out that at the beginning of the cultivated meat industry 10 years ago, all tastings held were illegal. They were however important to demonstrate proof of principle and to create appetite for further research. At the current state of the industry, all participants in the workshop however favoured a framework for tastings. Especially for start-ups, a tastings framework is valuable for showing both press and investors what they are up to. Furthermore, the Dutch initiative is useful to convince other EU Member States to develop similar initiatives. Bluu Seafood pointed out that Germany in particular was pretty shy to do so, as it considered tastings not to be in compliance with the EU Novel Food Regulation. Now German start-ups can point to the Dutch framework and request their authorities to take such initiative.

Another reason why tastings might be useful, is that the regulatory process takes a substantial amount of time. In Singapore, predicted timelines for Novel Food approval are between 9 – 12 months, but in reality, these go up. In fact, we have not seen any approvals for cell-based meat products since those for Good Meat and Upside Foods in Q4 2020. In the EU, the theoretic term for Novel Food approvals is about 18 months, but we know from practice it is more realistic to count 2 – 3 years. For the new industries of cellular agriculture, it remains to be seen if this term will apply as well. Demonstrating proof of principle during tastings can be a welcome deliverable before the final go.

Both in Singapore and the Netherlands, tastings should be done in a confined area, not open to the general public. This was understood by all participants in the workshop. At the same time, the concern was expressed that tastings should not become too clinical. They are meant to enjoy food products after all, not to evaluate medicinal products. Provided that a confined area and a selected audience can guaranteed, they can also be set up in a restaurant. Organising tastings during regular opening hours of restaurants will not yet be feasible, as such would fall within the scope of “placing on the market” under article 3.8 of the EU General Food Law Regulation. And placing on the market of Novel Foods requires pre-market approval.

2. For those previously involved in tastings: are they worth the efforts and did they bring you the data you were looking for?

 The parameters set in the regulatory tasting frameworks are meant to be high enough to ensure food security but not dissuasive for companies to demonstrate safety prior to obtaining market authorization. Nevertheless, it takes considerable efforts to accommodate these parameters. For instance, producing useful microbiology data requires a minimum quantity of the product to be produced, which at this stage is still very expensive.

Obviously, the tastings themselves require substantial product input, often in combination with various non-cultivated carriers creating a hybrid product. This requires investments which for start-up companies can be challenging.

However, tastings have proved most valuable to collect input from chefs who will be working with cultivated products and to provide proof of principle to investors. In particular, repeating tastings with the same chefs offers the advantage that they can monitor and comment progress made and provide suggestions for further improvement, especially to accommodate the local palette.

2. Is the available guidance from the regulators sufficiently clear to decide how to set up the tasting and establish the safety of your product? Has the regulator been helpful in clarifying any company queries?

Companies that already conducted tastings in Singapore considered the Singapore Food Authority (SFA) to be helpful in not only overseeing this process, but also in facilitating it. Where a first tasting takes quite some work in setting up safety documentation and addressing any potential concerns of the regulator, repeated tastings proved to require much less preparations. This is particularly true if all tastings take place at the same location, as it facilitates the medical contingency plan. This requires the indication how much time it takes to reach a medical centre if any problems occur.

Most importantly, permission for tastings being granted is perceived as a quiet vote of confidence by the regulator, as it seems to have a minimum level of comfort with the safety of the product to be tasted.

3. Do you see any value in tastings to be set up at an EU level as opposed to national level only?

No, not really. It is important to create a product that appeals locally, and this may differ from community to community. Also, it was discussed that tastings organized at a central level could induce companies to rely on the greatest common denominator, i.e. a burger. This would in fact be a pity, as cultivated foods offer so much more opportunities than that. This was for instance demonstrated by Vow Foods who made a crème brûlée with its cultivated quail.

4. Any ideas what could be done to prevent that tastings slow down regulatory approvals?

The representative from SFA explained that the total staff available for the safety assessment of Novel Food AND the evaluation of an exemption for the tasting and sensory evaluation of Novel Foods is four to five persons. It is easy to understand that the more time is spent on the evaluation of tastings, the less time can be spent on the safety assessment of Novel Foods as such.

It was discussed that if tastings go wrong, for instance by creating a health problem, they imply a risk, not only for the product at stake, but also for the sector. On the other hand, tastings also spark enthusiasm, as was demonstrated by Solar Foods who even held tastings after obtaining market approval in Singapore.

So the communis opinion was that tastings should be dosed. Do not overdo it, but carefully weigh the advantage it can bring your company at a particular moment of its lifetime, for example during a funding round.

5. Do tastings qualify as studies under the EU Transparency Regulation, that should be notified to EFSA during an application for authorization of a Novel Food?

The EFSA representative present in Barcelona was quite outspoken regarding this question. If you have any concerns about toxicity or any other possible hazard, you do not want to expose your intended audience for tastings to such hazard. A tasting session is not a study. So no, tastings as such do not have to be notified to EFSA under the Transparency Regulation.

What’s next?

In the Netherlands, the CAN Expert Committee is expected to be nominated early 2024 and local companies are already gearing up for organizing tastings in situ. So soon the Dutch will continue to work on their Dutch dream. Watch that space!

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