Anti-innovation and consumer choice? Italy moves to ban lab-grown meat, cheese and fish

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/Rimma_Bondarenko
Image: Getty/Rimma_Bondarenko

Related tags cultivated meat cell-based meat lab-grown Italy

First it was Nutri-Score. Now Italy is waging war on lab-grown food to preserve its famous gastronomic heritage.

Proposals put forward by Georgia Meloni’s government, approved by ministers last week, would ban the production and placing on the market in Italy of so-called “synthetic foods” produced from animal cells without killing the animal. The draft law would apply to lab-produced fish and synthetic milk but singles out “meat which is the result of a cell cultivation process”. It will reportedly introduce a fine of €10,000-€60,000 for any violation of the proposed ban. 

"Laboratory products in our opinion do not guarantee quality, well-being and the protection of our culture, our tradition,"​ said Minister Francesco Lollobrigida, a senior member of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy party.

Neither the European Food Safety Authority or its UK equivalent has yet received a novel food dossier from a company making cell-based meat.

But agriculture lobby Coldiretti said a ban on synthetic food is needed to safeguard domestic production "from the attacks of multinational companies".

‘Let's defend the Mediterranean diet’

The government further claimed its proposals have the support so far of half a million signatures throughout the country and plans attracted a "flash mob" of supporters outside Meloni's office in Rome whose banners read "No to synthetic food", “A real porchetta is better than test-tube food", "Let's defend the Mediterranean diet", and "No to the oligarchs of artificial food".

"Italy, which is the European leader in quality and safety at the table, has a duty to lead the way in food policies to protect citizens and businesses,"​ said Coldiretti, President of Ettore Prandini. “The young farmers, who have chosen to build their future in the countryside, would be the first victims of the spread of synthetic food, which aims to replace natural foods produced in the countryside with those made in the laboratory.”

But pro-cell-based meat campaigners said the proposals are anti-innovation, anti-consumer choice and anti-environment.

Alice Ravenscroft, head of policy at the Good Food Institute Europe, said: “The passing of such a law would shut down the economic potential of this nascent field in Italy, holding back scientific progress and climate mitigation efforts, and limiting consumer choice.

“It could prevent Italian scientists from undertaking crucial work, and ban Italian cultivated meat start-ups from existing at all. Italy would be left behind as the rest of Europe and the world progresses towards a more sustainable and secure food system.”

‘The government should let Italians make up their own minds about what they want to eat’

In December 2020, Singapore became the first country to grant regulatory approval to a cultivated meat product, and consumers have been eating it there since. Over the last four months, two separate cultivated meat products (from UPSIDE Foods and GOOD Meat) have successfully passed the United States Food and Drug Administration’s pre-market safety review.

“The EU already has a robust regulatory process in place for confirming the safety of new foods like cultivated meat, and regulators in the United States and Singapore have already found it to be safe,”​ Ravenscroft added. “The government should let Italians make up their own minds about what they want to eat, instead of stifling consumer freedom.”

Peer-reviewed research has shown that cultivated meat could cause up to 92% less emissions than conventional beef, and governments across Europe are eager to unlock the potential benefits of cultivated meat. In 2022 the Netherlands announced €60 million of government funding towards research and development of cultivated meat and precision fermentation. Meanwhile, the UK government announced a £16 million funding call for sustainable proteins, including cultivated meat, and in 2021, the Spanish government invested €5.2 million in a project investigating the potential for cultivated meat to help prevent diet-related diseases.

Cellular Agriculture Europe called the Italian proposals ‘unnecessary’. A spokesperson for the group said: “This ban could be damaging for the economic opportunity for Italy and the EU to be at the forefront of this innovation, to contribute to strengthening Europe’s food self-sufficiency in the face of fragile supply chains, increased domestic and international supply constraints and its competitiveness in the global agri-food industry, which is one of its areas of excellence.

“Such a ban will reduce consumers’ ability to choose the food they want. Thanks to cultivated meat, dairy and seafood companies there will be new products on the market, allowing consumers who are concerned about animal welfare and the environmental impact of their food, to choose the product they wish.

“This proposed ban contains misinformation and may only stymie efforts to make our agri-food systems more sustainable and deny Italian consumers complementary protein choices.

“The better path forward is to work with our companies and to support research on how these innovations can integrate with conventional agriculture to better achieve national climate and food security goals.”

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