'Livestock health is the weakest link in our global health chain' - Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Since our last article in January 2020 relating to the increasing market demand for cultivated 'clean' meat, we have witnessed the rapid and worldwide spread of the severe acute respiratory syndrome, coronavirus (COVID-19). The ensuing global pandemic has created a domino effect on stock markets, unemployment rates, consumer confidence and other worldwide economic factors, with many countries on the brink of recession. The origin of the outbreak is widely regarded to have been caused by a zoonotic virus, whereby disease-causing germs are passed from livestock or wildlife, directly to humans.
Melissa Campbell, an associate in the firm's Life Sciences team, looks at whether cultivated meat can reduce the threat of future pandemics and global economic downfall.
Prevention better than the cure?
With the first cases of COVID-19 being identified as early as December 2019, the rapid outbreak and global spread of it resulted in national (and subsequent local) lockdown measures and travel restrictions which have arguably done little to contain or prevent COVID-19 from spreading further.
It is widely considered that COVID-19 originated in the Huanan 'wet' Seafood Market in Wuhan, China and that 'wet markets' such as this trigger both stress in animals as a result of being farmed and caged, and the weakening of animals' immune systems. This creates a poorly sanitised environment where zoonotic viruses can leap to humans directly from livestock or wildlife.
The conditions seen in wet markets are often replicated on large-scale factory farms, where thousands of animals are crammed into small spaces with little sunlight and fresh air, causing distress amongst them and in turn, the spread of zoonotic diseases. This has been seen repeatedly with the spread of viruses such as SARS, swine flu and bird flu. Around 75% of the infectious disease outbreaks are zoonotic and, despite only causing mild symptoms in animals, when zoonotic viruses pass from animals to humans they pose a significantly greater threat, causing severe illness or death.
COVID-19 has forced us to significantly change our daily routines. This raises the question of whether now is also the time to consider making other changes such as modernising meat production; not only due to the potential benefits to climate change and antibiotic resistance but to decrease the likelihood of future pandemics that could hit us even harder than COVID-19.
Large-scale factory farms also present the concerning risk of antibiotic resistance.
When antibiotics are overused in the treatment of animals, bacteria forms a mutation to survive the antibiotic becoming more dominant. This has the effect of the antibiotic becoming less effective, and creating diseases that are not treatable. Farmers frequently use antibiotics on livestock and poultry, usually to compensate for poor farming conditions such as those referenced above.
Antibiotic resistance combined with unsanitary conditions creates a perfect home for the development of unusual bacteria, and ultimately zoonotic diseases, presenting a significant risk to human health worldwide.
Cultivated meat is likely to hit markets in 2021 thanks to the groundbreaking technologies that have been developed in this area.
The process of making clean meat is similar to that of livestock meat, except the cells grow outside the animal's body. The first step is to take some cells from the muscle of an animal, such as a cow (if the meat being produced is beef), which is done with a small biopsy under anaesthesia. Stem cells are extracted and then placed in a medium containing nutrients and naturally-occurring growth factors, and allowed to proliferate just as they would inside an animal. Trillions of cells are grown from just a small stem cell sample. The cells are then placed in a gel that is 99% water, which helps the cells form the shape of muscle fibres. The cells contract, which causes them to start putting on bulk, growing into a small strand of muscle tissue. From one sample from a cow, 800 million strands of muscle tissue (enough to make 80,000 quarter pounders) can be created, which when layered together, create meat.
This process eliminates the concerns surrounding zoonotic diseases in traditional large-scale meat production, and gives meat-eating consumers an identical substitute.
Since the publication of our last article on cultivated meat in January 2020, there has been very little regulatory movement in the development of cultivated meat in the EU, and it is yet to be determined how cultivated meat products will be regulated in the UK following Brexit.
Please refer to our January 2020 article for a summary of the Novel Foods authorisation process in relation to the regulation of safety and labelling of cell-based meat. We have specialists at Hill Dickinson in relation to the Novel Foods authorisation procedure within the EU and are able to advise on the process every step of the way.
Due to the advanced technologies used to produce cultivated meat, is there really a good enough reason not to fully make use of them in order to avoid a future pandemic, which could potentially have an even greater catastrophic effect that we have experienced with COVID-19?
This is a fascinating time in the clean meat industry. Before COVID-19 hit, MarketsandMarkets analysts predicted that the cultured meat market was expected to reach US$593 million in sales by 2032. Now the world has seen the huge impact a pandemic can have not only on our everyday lives but on the global economy, it will be interesting to see if the clean meat market continues its rapid growth as a viable alternative to the conventional meat industry, which imposes a health threat to the global population.
For further details on the information outlined above, please do not hesitate to get in touch with one of our contacts.
How we can help
Our firm acts for a number of food technology and investment vehicle companies (both private and public listed entities) that focus on the life sciences sector, concentrating on, but not limited to, environmentally friendly alternatives to the traditional production of meat, seafood and other plant-based nutrition sources.
We support clients from an idea in a lab, to helping incorporate the company, raising capital, protecting and licensing intellectual property, signing strategic partnerships and, ultimately, commercialising life-changing treatments and technologies. We also help clients navigate a legal landscape that is continuously evolving in response to innovation as well as societal, regulatory and ethical challenges. Our integrated team provides high-quality, trusted advice to some of the world's leading life sciences companies.
Areas of expertise in which we work include healthtech (including AI), pharma, IVF, embryo research, medical cannabis, cell and gene therapies, and genomics.
Originally Published by Hill Dickinson, November 2020
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.