Lab testing

What might a typical shopping list look like in 2025? Perhaps fruit, cereal and crickets? Or a burger made in a lab?

It may sound far-fetched, but this future is closer than you might think. Over the past few years, the development of new food products – made using protein from insects, plankton and meat grown from animal cells in a laboratory  – has made enormous progress. So much so that lab-grown meat and other alternative protein products could soon be on sale in Europe.

However, products like these cannot simply be launched on the market. They typically need to pass a raft of regulatory hurdles.

Most alternative protein products are likely to be classed as novel foods and require authorisation in the UK and EU. This is a lengthy and complex process requiring a detailed application as well as scientific and safety testing. The process from application to approval can take years. In addition, many of these products may require authorisation to make certain health claims and use genetically modified ingredients.

Companies will need to consider how to label and advertise these products. This is particularly important for novel foods because, at least initially, consumers will be unfamiliar with the product. Additional information may be required, presented in a clear and transparent way, to avoid misleading consumers about what they are buying. There are also new safety considerations which also need to be highlighted – for example, people with a crustacean allergy may also be allergic to some types of insects.

To effectively commercialise these products, companies will need to think about the best way to address associated intellectual property issues. The use of innovative technologies, particularly in creating lab-grown meat, means patent protection of a company’s own inventions (and those of others) will be an important consideration. Alternatively, a company may want to keep details of production confidential, creating opportunities for protection as a trade secret.

In the UK, there are moves to bring these products to market. Brexit and the war in Ukraine highlighted how fragile our supply chains are. Insects, plankton and lab-grown meat can potentially be made in (almost) any location, providing the lab or ‘farm’ provides the conditions they need. However, significant financial investment will be needed to support research and development.

Outside the UK, these products are also gaining traction, particularly in Asia and the US. In November 2022, Singapore was the first country to approve the sale of cultivated meat in the form of chicken nuggets and chicken breast. Shortly after this, the US also approved the sale of Upside Foods’ cultivated chicken product.

Within Europe, there are developments in this sector as well. There is growing interest in the Belgian market and applications for novel food products have been submitted by Belgian-based companies to the European Food Safety Authority – the most recent being for corn proteins. In Poland, the former minister for agriculture is supporting the development of products made from larvae, worms and insects.

All of which means, even though there are many legal challenges that need to be met before alternative proteins are sold in Europe, there is little doubt they will start appearing in our shopping baskets soon.