UK risks being left behind without more agile alternative protein regulation

Retained EU regulation means Impossible Food's flagship burger still can’t be served in the UK while cultivated meat is regulated by rules that were created before the technology existed, says Jeremy Coller.

With the science advancing rapidly, cultivated meat – also known as cell-cultured meat – could soon move from a niche product of today where its availability is still very limited, to a staple of tomorrow that is widely consumed. With amazing universities and pioneering entrepreneurs, the UK has all the right ingredients to be a world leader in this food of the future.

Investment is advancing too. From a base of $60 million raised across the cultivated meat industry in 2019, investments shot up to $1.38 billion in 2021.

Yet despite this, and the UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s assurance at last month’s CBI conference that he is “absolutely committed to using our new Brexit freedoms to create the most pro-innovation regulatory environment in the world,” the UK is in danger of missing an open goal when it comes to the newest branch of the agriculture sector.

Our small yet growing domestic industry is still held back by anachronistic EU red tape, based on The European Food Safety Authority’s regulation on novel foods, which were created when the technology and techniques being used today didn’t even exist.

Because of these anachronistic regulations, UK companies are trying to operate in the age of Twitter, using rules designed for the age of telegrams. Other countries are not making this mistake.

Singapore is already home to more than 35 international alternative protein companies, ranging from plant-based to cultivated meat producers, attracted by bespoke regulation that is fit for the 21st century. Singapore is also the first country to approve sales of cultivated meat.

And in the US, which is the most carnivorous country in the world, the Food and Drug Administration gave approval to Upside Foods in November for a cultivated chicken product for the first time, paving the way for USDA approval and sales to consumers.

The UK’s regulatory and taxation landscape is such that it begs questions such as, why is Impossible Food’s original burger recipe still banned from the UK under retained EU laws, when American consumers have been safely enjoying it for more than five years?

Why is a beef burger considered to be an essential item for VAT zero-rating purposes, but a plant-based burger is deemed to be a luxury indulgence?

And why, when oat, soy and almond milk are added to countless cups of coffee every morning and scientists are able to brew a drink genetically identical to that produced by a cow, are British shops not allowed to call something “milk” unless it comes from the udder of a mammal? The British public are more than capable of telling the difference, so these regulations only serve to harm sales.

These measures have become a misplaced barrier to growth and investment.

All is not lost, however. A new report from the Alternative Proteins Association sets out 12 steps the UK can take to not only catch up with the early pace-setters, but nudge ahead and eventually lead the world.

With budgets being squeezed, the report makes clear what’s needed isn’t public subsidy, but political will. One benefit of Brexit is it allows us to reshape the regulatory framework for the modern age – our politicians just have to want to do it. But the longer we wait, the harder it will become for Britain to be a leader in this industry.

Without the crucial competitive edge that comes with being first, new technologies can face an overwhelming barrier to entry. Just look at Europe’s increasingly frantic dash to build silicon chips, or the travails of those attempting to make the UK a powerhouse of EV batteries.

If we don’t act with urgency on this vital technology of tomorrow, we risk being too late once again. But with quick action the UK can secure thousands of jobs, a massive export market, and more security of its food supply.

Jeremy Coller is chief investment officer of Coller Capital, president of the Alternative Protein Association and chair of the FAIRR initiative.