This week, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in collaboration with WHO, published its first global report on the food safety aspects of cell-based products.
The report aims to provide a solid scientific basis to begin establishing regulatory frameworks and effective systems to ensure the safety of alternative proteins.
Corinna Hawkes, director of the FAO’s food systems and food safety division, said: “FAO, together with WHO, supports its members by providing scientific advice that can be useful for food safety competent authorities to use as a basis to manage various food safety issues”.
In a statement, the FAO said: “Cell-based foods are not futuristic foods. More than 100 companies/start-ups are already developing cell-based food products that are ready for commercialisation and awaiting approval.”
The report states that these spurring food system innovations are in response to “tremendous food challenges” relating to the world population reaching 9.8 billion in 2050.
As some cell-based food products are already under various stages of development, the report says that it is “critical to objectively assess the benefits they might bring, as well as any risks associated with them – including food safety and quality concerns”.
The report, titled Food Safety Aspects of Cell-Based Food, includes a literature synthesis of relevant terminology issues, principles of cell-based food production processes, the global landscape of regulatory frameworks, and case studies from Israel, Qatar and Singapore “to highlight different scopes, structures and contexts surrounding their regulatory frameworks for cell-based food”.
The publication includes the results of an FAO-led expert consultation that was held in Singapore in November last year, where a comprehensive food safety hazard identification was conducted – hazard identification being the first step of the formal risk assessment process.
The hazard identification covered four stages of the cell-based food production process: cell sourcing, cell growth and production, cell harvesting, and food processing. Experts agreed that while many hazards are already well known and exist equally in conventionally produced food, the focus may need to be put on the specific materials, inputs, ingredients – including potential allergens – and equipment that are more unique to cell-based food production.
Although FAO refers to “cell-based foods,” the report acknowledges that ‘cultivated’ and ‘cultured’ are also terms commonly used within the industry. FAO urges national regulatory bodies to establish clear and consistent language to mitigate miscommunication, which is crucial for labelling.
The report suggests that a case-by-case approach to food safety assessments of cell-based food products is suitable as, although generalisations can be made about the production process, each product could employ different cell sources, scaffolds or microcarriers, culture media compositions, cultivation conditions and reactor designs.
It also states that in most countries, cell-based foods can be assessed within existing novel food frameworks, citing Singapore’s amendments to its novel food regulations to include cell-based foods and the US’s formal agreement on labelling and safety requirements for food made from cultured cells of livestock and poultry, as examples. It adds that the USDA has stated its intent to draw up regulations on the labelling of meat and poultry products derived from animal cells.
According to FAO, “there is currently a limited amount of information and data on the food safety aspects of cell-based foods to support regulators in making informed decisions”.
The report notes that more data generation and sharing at the global level are essential to creating an atmosphere of openness and trust, to enable the positive engagement of all stakeholders. It also says that international collaborative efforts would benefit various food safety competent authorities, particularly those in low- and middle-income countries, to employ an evidence-based approach to prepare any necessary regulatory actions.
It finishes by stating that besides food safety, other subject areas such as terminology, regulatory frameworks, nutrition aspects, consumer perception and acceptance (including taste and affordability) are just as important, and possibly even more important in terms of introducing this technology into the marketplace.
For the expert consultation held in Singapore from 1 to 4 November last year, FAO issued an open global call for experts from 1 April to 15 June 2022, in order to form a group of experts with multidisciplinary fields of expertise and experience.
A total of 138 experts applied and an independent selection panel reviewed and ranked the applications based on pre-set criteria – 33 applicants were shortlisted. Among them, 26 completed and signed a ‘Confidentiality Undertaking and Declaration of Interest’ form, and after the evaluation of all disclosed interests, candidates with no perceived conflict of interest were listed as experts, while candidates with a relevant background on the matter and that could be perceived as a potential conflict of interest were listed as resource people.
The technical panel experts are:
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