In recent times, the debate on the so-called “synthetic meat” has intensified in Italy, which not only is not really synthetic (we get there) but has never even been produced or sold in the country. However, there are countries in which research on this product is very advanced and one country in particular in which laboratory-produced meat has already been eaten for some time: Singapore.
Here, after a 2020 law, some restaurants have begun to offer dishes based on meat made in vitro, i.e. starting from animal cells that are grown and developed in the laboratory, effectively imitating what normally happens with the growth of a being living. It is no coincidence that it happened in Singapore: a small city-state that has both a food supply problem and a particularly advanced technological industry.
Since December, every Thursday for lunch, at the bistro of the family-run Huber’s Butchery you can taste two dishes based on the “GOOD Meat” produced by the US startup Eat Just, so far the only product of this type to have obtained the authorization for sale, only in Singapore. Last Thursday the small bistro of the Huber’s butcher shop was full, with about 10/15 customers, mostly from the United States, Australia and Germany, who had managed to book the seats available online which usually sell out within a few minutes. Among these was also Giacomo, an Italian who has lived in Singapore for some years (he asked to be mentioned only by name) and who provided the Post with the photos you see in this article, as well as having recounted some details about his experience. That day you could choose between a plate of orecchiette with chicken and vegetables GOOD Meat and a sandwich with the same chicken but fried, served with chips and salad.
Giacomo liked the taste of the meat, even though he said that the texture reminded him not so much of chicken as of tempeh, a vegetable food derived from fermented soybeans, very popular in Southeast Asia and also known in Europe. «Eating it you could feel the richness of the protein and the taste of the marinade», but «I wouldn’t have said it was chicken», Giacomo said, saying that the meat was «a bit dry». A journalist who had tried it in 2022 during a tasting organized in Singapore by Eat Just had written that it was “like eating a ‘lighter’ McDonald’s chicken nugget”, “less greasy” and always “without a well-defined texture” , but which all in all tasted like chicken.
The one tried by Giacomo was the third “prototype” of GOOD Meat chicken: the employees of Eat Just, who also use lunches at the butcher’s shop to gather customers’ opinions and considerations, explained to Giacomo that one of the next objectives of company is just to try to make it juicier.
The techniques used by Eat Just to produce its meat are similar to those of other companies that have begun to develop it in the laboratory in recent years, particularly in the United States, the Netherlands and Israel. In a nutshell, we start from the stem cells of animals (in this case chickens), which are not yet specialized and which therefore have the potential to differentiate into the various types of mature cells which then constitute a tissue. These cells are not “synthetic”, but derive from a sample taken from already living animals or from embryos.
Once the suitable stem cells have been isolated, they are placed in special containers in which there is a culture medium, usually a solution that contains nutrients of various types, where the cells begin to grow and replicate. To arrive at a tissue comparable to the muscle of an animal, i.e. the meat that is normally consumed, one must then find a way to recreate the three-dimensional structure of the meat, which is what gives the texture and the ability of the tissue itself not to fall apart. during cooking. A kind of scaffolding is therefore used which allows the meat to grow and shape into the desired shape.
On the GOOD Meat website we read that the process to create a portion of meat with these techniques takes from four to six weeks. Giacomo said that he had asked the Eat Just employees what it looks like when raw: he was told he was thinking of a piece of raw chicken breast and imagining giving it a spin in the washing machine with a whitener: «Not something properly inviting,” they said.
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Research in the sector has been going on for years and their aim is to find more sustainable methods for producing meat, given that cattle farms involve a large consumption of energy and a large part of the greenhouse gas emissions linked to human activities. According to the companies that deal with it, their work would make it possible to obtain meat with the same nutritional value as that of farmed animals, polluting less and avoiding the use of large quantities of pastures, feed or antibiotics; in addition, they would also reduce the ethical problems associated with the suffering inflicted on animals by the current industrial meat production system.
At the moment, however, there are various difficulties. The sector is still small and made up of many startups financed by investment funds, but there are doubts about their ability to survive; then there are objective problems, such as moving from a small-scale production method to a larger-scale one, in order to produce many kilograms of meat.
However, it is no coincidence that the first restaurant and the first butcher’s shop to serve meat produced with these techniques are located in Singapore, the first and currently the only country in the world to have authorized its sale, at the end of 2020.
Following approval, the first to serve GOOD Meat in December of the same year was the 1880 restaurant, and then it was also presented in some street food establishments and pop-up restaurants, those that open and close quickly to try to promote new foods, very popular in the area. In 2022 Eat Just obtained permission to build a large plant in Singapore for the production of its meat. A few months ago Singapore also became the first country in the world to have authorized the sale of Solein, a yellow powder that resembles grated Parmesan cheese but is actually produced from various microorganisms and nutrients.
In the words of Mirte Gosker, director of the Asia-Pacific division of the think tank Good Food Institute, there are two fundamental reasons why Singapore is currently “undoubtedly the hub for alternative proteins in Asia – and arguably the world”. First, the need to meet the food needs of its approximately 5.4 million inhabitants in the future, and then the fact that it has already been a very advanced place from a technological point of view for some time.
Singapore, in fact, stands on a series of islands and occupies a total area of about 720 square kilometers – less than half of the metropolitan area of Milan – and less than 1 percent of its territory is devoted to farming. In any case, the country relies on imports for about 90 percent of the food needed for the needs of the population, with potential risks both for possible supply problems and for the possible increase in costs. For this reason, the Singapore Food Safety Agency has launched the “30 by 30” plan, which aims to produce at least 30 percent of the food required for national needs in the area by 2030 and with methods environmentally sustainable.
Then there is the fact that many technology companies already exist in Singapore and therefore there are the structures and the aptitude to support research in this field. “In the transition from biomedical technologies to the development of food technologies there is no need to reinvent the wheel,” Professor William Chen, director of the food science and technology program at Nanyang University of Technology, told the Guardian.
Susie O’Neill, an official of the think tank Food Frontier, noted that today in Singapore there are at least 17 companies that produce “vegetable meat”, that is, one that has an appearance and texture similar to that of real meat, but is obtained from the processing of ingredients such as wheat, coconut oil and potatoes. According to an analysis by the Good Food Institute, there are currently 36 others researching and developing lab-created protein alternatives, such as fish, milk and dairy products.
One of Eat Just’s short-term goals is to expand the offer of its products and find new places to taste its meat in Singapore, as the company’s employees told Giacomo. The managing director, Josh Tetrick, explained that instead for the long term the aim is to sell the meat made in the laboratory in other Asian countries, but also to make sure that by 2030 its cost is similar or even lower than chicken, beef and pork raised on farms. At the moment, in fact, the cost of GOOD Meat-based dishes is quite high if compared with what is spent on average for a typical lunch in local restaurants: 18.5 Singapore dollars (about 12.6 euros) against 5-10 which are usually spent. Locals often turn up their noses when they pay more than $5 for lunch: foreigners living in Singapore are willing to spend much more, Giacomo said.
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