Plant-based challenges: Why ethics, environment and regulatory issues need to be addressed - new review

By Gary Scattergood

- Last updated on GMT

Challenges persist for the plant-based sector, despite its commercial growth, say researchers. GettyImages
Challenges persist for the plant-based sector, despite its commercial growth, say researchers. GettyImages

Related tags plant based Protein

The booming plant-based sector requires further scientific, technological and regulatory improvements in order to address consumer concerns and increase its commercial sustainability, say researchers in China and the US.

While the global commercialisation of meat substitutes is intended to counteract the environmental impact of the worldwide growth in meat consumption, it faces technological, consumer and regulatory challenges.

So far, research on meat substitutes has emphasised commercialisation, technological enhancements and lowering costs, with little attention paid to regulatory issues, ethical risk perception, environmental pollution and safety, states the paper.

Based on these issues, researchers in China and the US conducted a review of published studies to examine four key challenges facing plant-based meat (PM) and cultured meat (CM) substitutes: technology, commercialisation, hazards, and regulatory oversight.

Consumer preferences are mainly influenced by taste and price. In order for meat substitutes to match the taste of meat, food additives are necessary in their production. Manufacturers must also consider that consumers “prefer natural additives to chemical additives in meat substitutes”.

The most significant challenge to meat substitute technology, however, is its high production cost. This is a key reason for its slow speed of commercialisation, though there it has a niche market among vegetarians, vegans and animal welfare advocates.

Currently, PM and CM products are progressing at different rates in terms of meeting these needs. As they are much costlier to produce than PM products, CM products have not been commercialised on a large scale.

The Singapore Food Administration (SFA) has approved US firm GOOD Meat  to sell its cultivated chicken in the country, making Singapore the world’s first to permit the sale of lab-grown meat. At the same time, Israeli start-up Future Meat Technologies (FMT) plans to “launch a production line of 100% CM products this year”,​ lowering the cost to under $12 per kilogramme.

In terms of consumer attitudes, German consumers “show moderate acceptance”​ of CM products but have also voiced concerns on the “global spread of unregulated CM products”.​ On the other hand, most Chinese urban consumers are unfamiliar with meat substitutes in general, while a survey by Italian researchers​ found that 54% of the respondents were keen on trying CM products.

Meaty ethics

Consumers have expressed doubts on whether meat substitutes are safe for consumption, and whether their primary purpose is tackling world hunger or increasing profitability, say researchers.

There are further ethical concerns when it comes to CM products, mainly around their ingredients. Many consider the acquisition of foetal bovine serum (FBS), one of the main supplements of CM products, to be inhumane, causing some to reject meat substitutes.

The researchers stated that in order to address these concerns, it was necessary to compile data to find solutions. They further wrote: “In the early stage of development, enterprises or R&D institutions should invite consumer participation to promote the understanding of technology and the food development process.”

They added that government agencies should disseminate pertinent scientific information about meat substitutes and practise thoughtful consideration to increase consumer understanding and acceptance of such products.

Hazardous concerns

One of the potential hazards in PM manufacturing is raw material contamination. Inadequate control during fermentation could cause contamination and protein damage in soybean and other plant-based raw materials.

During the production stage, incorrect ingredient distribution ratios could result in a disparity in nutrient absorption between PM products and meat. In CM production, improper operation could lead to contamination during fermentation, and “the degree of protein deformation may exceed or be lower than the desired range”, claims the review.

Additionally, during seed cell transformation, high-risk biological contaminants could be introduced, causing cell pollution and variation.

The researchers wrote that the production stage “must focus on ingredients and composition” ​and that it was “necessary to monitor the culture environment, because CM is easily affected by various microorganisms”.

Regulatory gap

Presently, there is a lack of clear classification of meat substitutes — not only does the technology used in their production differ from that of traditional meat products, CM product standards also differ from one country or region to another. This lack of clear classification prevents proper regulation of the industry.

To help establish a clear regulatory framework for the industry, the researchers suggested that different regulations could be implemented based on whether a meat substitute facility is “categorised as an agricultural or food processing entity”​. They added that the “assessment and management of CM products should be independent from PM product rules and include CM product manufacturing”.

Suggestions for industry progression

The researchers said that to improve meat substitute technology, it was necessary to “efficiently simulate animal muscle tissue growth and scale up production in bioreactors”. 

In terms of ethical issues, they noted that it was “unrealistic to expect to eliminate consumer concerns about meat substitutes or to resolve the debate over the morality of the development and application”​ of meat substitute technology.


Source: Foods

“A Review of the Challenges Facing Global Commercialization of the Artificial Meat Industry”

Authors: Weijun Liu, et al.

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