The insurance risks of lab-grown meat

In 1932 Winston Churchill wrote that in 50 years “we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium”.

More than 70 years later, lab-grown meat is not just the latest product for environmentally conscious consumers, it also heralds a new type of agriculture and food product design, which could offer attractive risk profiles for insurers that get to know the science.

Stem cells, taken from the muscles of living, adult animals, are used to generate lots of muscle cells in a growth medium or “bioreactor” and, in turn, build up muscle tissue on artificial scaffolding.

It is arguably real “meat” without needing to rear or kill an animal or to farm lots of land. It is touted as having the potential to be healthier than traditional meat: free of chemicals and disease and with specified amounts and types of fats. There is even a new specialty restaurant in the Netherlands called “Bistro In Vitro”.

But the industry faces hurdles. The first cultured meat burger, costing £250,000 ($322,524), was presented in London in August 2013 to journalists and guests and was said not to have much flavour or texture. Further, running a laboratory is potentially less environmentally friendly than farming, an issue that must be overcome if cultured meat is to become the “ethical choice”.

In one sense, the meat-culturing process is simply a multi-cellular version of the mass production of yoghurt, in which single-celled bacteria are cultured in a milk-rich growth medium.

Complications

However, cultured meat is more complicated. Because the end product is essentially meat, the usual regulations for commercial meat production should apply, such as the EU Agricultural Products Standards Regulation. It would be a stretch not to say EU Hygiene Regulation, which regulates contaminants in “meat from bovine and porcine animals” and other animals, would not apply, when the lab-grown cells are still derived from animals.

EU legislation defines genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as “any biological entity capable of replication or of transferring genetic material… in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination”.

The European Court of Justice ruled in July last year that even genetic changes that occur in nature or by breeding fall under the GMO regime, where targeted changes are made using bio­technology, because of the num­ber and speed of changes possible.

The European Commission’s group of chief scientific advisers warned in November 2018 that this approach could stifle technologies in the EU that are in fact less risky than untargeted, traditional methods. By way of example, humans are understood to have bred most of the cyanide out of domestic almonds using trial-and-error methods.

To culture meat in a laboratory, it is not strictly necessary to modify any part of the genome.  However, there is a growing recognition meat culture manu­facturers will need to resort to genetic modifications to hone the flavour, fat content, texture and nutrition of the cultured meat. Such products would be governed by the usual rules for GMOs in food and feed.

That is the case for synthetic milk produced without a cow, using genetically modified yeast programmed to produce the same proteins as found in cow’s milk. Synthesised milk might benefit from “synthetic biology”, which is the synthesis of genetic code and living cells using inanimate materials, and which continues to feature in Lloyd’s of London’s emerging risk reports.

However, the benefits are less clear for the manufacture of multi-cellular tissues, like meat. The largest genome to be synthesised from scratch was a bacterial genome four million base pairs (genetic letters) long, announced by Cambridge scientists in May. In contrast, the size of a bovine genome is three billion base pairs.

Meanwhile, techniques for the 3D printing of existing live cells (“bioinks”) are advancing.

In April, scientists from Tel Aviv University announced they had printed a human heart, including live cells and blood vessels, albeit in miniature and not yet capable of effectively pumping blood. “Printed” fillet steak is likely to be around the corner.

Compliance risks

For insurers considering proposals from meat manufacturers, there are some unique features. Cultured meat will face regulatory compliance risks akin to traditional agricultural businesses, but in theory with a far lower risk of contaminants such as salmonella, E. coli and mad cow disease compared to traditional farms and slaughterhouses.

Contamination risks will be more akin to those faced by food manufacturers, where the environment is controlled but bacteria, yeast or chemicals can sometimes be accidentally introduced. These all have the usual implications for product liability and directors’ and officers’ insurers.

The additional risks inherent in GMO food, such as regulatory compliance and the need for testing, will be in play, although any health risks beyond “traditional” meat will depend on which genetic changes are made. While the techniques may be as sophisticated as pharmaceutical or medical applications, the end performance is not as complicated: it just needs to taste nice and not give anyone food poisoning.

There could be financial risks for cultured meat start-ups, not least because of the historical reluctance of Europeans to buy GMO foodstuffs, despite benefits such as increased nutrition and disease resistance.

Start-ups, such as the UK’s Higher Steaks, are led by chemical engineers. Insurers of these and related professions, such as biological or environmental consultants, and process engineers, should keep in mind their insureds may increasingly become involved in new biotech-for-the-consumer industries like meat manufacturing.

Perhaps more importantly, we might be looking at the next revolution in agriculture. The risk profiles of agricultural businesses may change as they face competition from these new methods or seek to adopt them themselves. Ultimately, this burgeoning industry is an exciting new technology and will be attractive to insurers that feel comfortable enough with the science to see it as simply the new method of agriculture and food manufacture.

This article was first published by Insurance Day on 21 November 2019