EFSA welcomes cell-based food pioneers: “When market applications arrive, we are ready”
11 May 2023 --- The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is preparing to receive the first commercial wave of EU requests for the market authorization of cell-based foods. The scientific authorities aren’t aware when they will receive the first submission, but an EFSA spokesperson tells FoodIngredientsFirst that they are prepared for when the time comes.
The EU lags behind Singapore in establishing a regulatory framework for cultivated meat. The southeast Asian country granted Eat Just world-first regulatory approval to sell its cultivated chicken in December 2020. The bloc is also behind the US, which food authorities gave a “No Questions” letter to GOOD Meat – concluding its cultivated chicken is safe to eat – in March.
Similarly, Israeli food authorities have already received regulatory applications for lab-grown foods.
“We know that there is very high interest in this area,” highlights EFSA’s spokesperson.
“We are in close contact with our counterpart safety authorities around the world. We have seen a steep rise in applications for new novel foods in Europe over recent years, which clearly shows that there is substantial interest and incentives in the EU market for novel products.”
According to the spokesperson, EFSA has evaluated over a hundred novel food applications in recent years.
Road to commercialization
The EFSA spokesperson explains that the organization’s scientific advice goes through a robust process.
“We have a nine month deadline for our novel food assessments. However, the clock may be stopped at any time if further information, clarifications or data are required for the risk assessments to be finalized,” they say.
The time needed for the risk assessment depends on the “completeness” and “quality” of the dossier or data submitted.
Subsequent decisions on the approvals of novel foods and conditions of use are in the hands of the EU legislators – European Commission and EU Member States – who are responsible for authorizations.
Italy, for example, has already moved to ban cell-based foods, fearing the novel foods could threaten the country’s culinary heritage.
According to the Novel Food Regulation, following a safety assessment by EFSA, the EU Commission has up to seven months to prepare a proposal for a decision – either a marketing authorization or a refusal – which is then made by a committee composed of EU Member State authorities.
“That decision and the timing of it is beyond EFSA’s remit. We won’t compromise on safety. But we are always looking at ways we can make the system as efficient as possible, which is why we are in constant dialogue with stakeholders to ensure the requirements are clear,” the spokesperson details.
The food safety authority is hosting a colloquium today and tomorrow to identify sectors in the agri-food system that are relevant to cell culture-derived foods. Furthermore, scientists will review the state of the art of relevant concepts, technologies and derived products and discuss emerging safety and methodological aspects related to the novel foods.
“We regularly meet with stakeholders on novel foods in scientific events and workshops to discuss technological challenges and safety aspects,” the spokesperson says.
EFSA notes that the actual production of cell-based food in the EU is still “in its infancy” but “rapidly growing, as in the rest of the world.”
“Our aim is to ensure we are taking into account all the latest scientific and risk assessment developments in setting standards for evaluating the safety of these new food technologies,” the spokesperson notes.
“The colloquium is also an opportunity to listen to stakeholders and provide input into our routine reviews of our guidance documents to keep them up to date with advances in science and technologies. We are in constant dialogue to support applicants through the application process.”
Professor Michael Siegrist, who leads ETH Zurich’s research group on food and consumer behavior, says that the perceived naturalness of food or food technologies is a “critical factor for consumers.”
“Cell culture-derived meat is a good example. In many studies, most participants indicated a low willingness to even try it,” he says.
“This reliance on ‘naturalness’ is a mental shortcut – called a ‘heuristic’ – that all people take: ‘If it’s natural, it can’t harm me. In fact, it must be good for me.’ The opposite applies to what is not natural.”
Siegrist explains that effective communication also plays a role in consumer acceptance of new foods.
“It remains to be seen if people will overcome the psychological and information barriers to cell culture-derived food. But it will certainly only be the case if products like cell culture-derived meat taste as good and are cheaper than the traditional alternatives,” he concludes.
By Marc Cervera
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