There’s also the fact that these technologies are outpacing regulations. Which means the only current option is to use existing frameworks to generate scientific data that demonstrates new concepts meet safety thresholds. But this is far from straightforward. Identifying what regulators are looking for is only part of the challenge. Without specific guidelines in place, you also need the experience to recognise when certain safety assessments are not applicable and find new ways of proving materials are safe.
To understand why this matters, it’s important to look at two leading novel food technologies in the context of the current regulatory landscape.
Precision fermentation has already successfully been used to create a range of novel food ingredients including oligosaccharides, proteins, dietary fibres, lipids, food pigments and colours. Although the basic principle of feeding raw materials to a specific microorganism or enzyme to yield the finished product is familiar, this technology has advanced to such an extent that it offers game-changing possibilities.
A growing number of novel food ingredients produced in this way have already secured approval and moved to industrial scale-up. These products are available on the market and present in certain commercial foods, such as plant-based proteins in milk alternatives. From a regulatory perspective, however, this is just the beginning.
Rather than signal a clear framework for every future submission, these developments are helping to build a solid point of reference. As more players enter the market and more data becomes available, this knowledge bank will continue to expand and inform future novel food applications. In the meantime, there remains the very real need to understand the detailed nuances within the regulatory approvals process in each target market.
Cellular agriculture on the other hand, is a comparatively new and evolving technology. Although application can be plant based, in our experience the current focus is very much on ‘lab grown’ meat which also – somewhat confusingly - goes by the name of ‘cellular’ and ‘cultivated’ meat.
How quickly the resulting novel foods become a commercial reality remains to be seen. As a cutting-edge technology, it’s largely without precedent and many decisions relating to crucial issues, such as optimum yield and stable growth, are yet to be finalised. This uncertainty means that while many countries plan to apply existing frameworks for novel foods to cell-cultivated meat, others are still deciding whether this is the right approach or a specific pathway is needed.
There are also wider issues to consider. For example, a small number of approvals have already been issued in Singapore and the US, but what happens when these small-scale operations transition to larger volumes? Will the same regulatory framework be appropriate?
And what about product labelling? With many different terms already in use, a unified approach seems unlikely. Which means consumer perception, cultural trends and political dynamics will play into regulatory developments, particularly around key issues such as GMO status and preferred on pack labelling.