Transcript: Katia Merten-Lentz podcast

Our senior reporter Carmen Cracknell spoke to Katia Merten-Lentz about food innovation and regulation.

This is a transcript of the podcast Katia Merten-Lentz on foodtech innovation and lab meat regulation between GRIP senior reporter Carmen Cracknell and food lawyer Katia Merten-Lentz.


Carmen Cracknell: Welcome back to the GRIP Podcast. Lab meat, also known as cultured or in vitro meat, represents a major milestone in food innovation. Growing meat in labs could eliminate foodborne pathogens, boost global food security and decrease food waste and the pollution emitted by intensive farming. Perhaps most convincing of all, it would erase the animal cruelty of factory farming forever. Currently worth in the hundreds of millions, the industry is estimated to be worth billions of dollars by 2030. But not surprisingly, the idea of lab meat is in itself controversial. Food lawyer, Katia Merten-Lentz joined me to talk about the challenges of regulating what are known as novel foods and why it can be a difficult area to navigate.

Katia, thank you so much for joining me. We’re here to talk about novel foods and the regulation of specifically lab grown meat, also known as in vitro meat. But can you start by telling us a bit about your background and how you got into this very niche area?

Katia Merten-Lentz: Yeah, and it’s always by pure coincidence, or often question the story of life. When I was a student and back to university, I studied the European law, which was at the time, very specific such and among many European topics, the most appealing, attractive at the time was the competition law. And I followed a very interesting course at King’s College in London, where I remember Professor Richard Whish. And I was totally [immersed] and obsessed by competition law. So my first job I applied for was for a French firm based in Brussels. And I wished at the time to join the competition law team. But they were fully booked. And they said no thanks.

But we’ve just hired a guy from the European Commission. And this guy is about to retire from the European Commission. He was in charge during 25 years after being part of Jacques Delors team. He was in charge of the [???], and the name nowadays is FEAGA. It’s a public body, the European public body, in charge of the CAP funds. So thanks to this guy, Michel Jacquot, I started not at all in the competition area, but in the agriculture area. And from agriculture issues step by step, I discovered from the very beginning the creation of the European Food Safety Authority, the implementation of the first novel food regulation in 1997, the hygiene package of everything which we call now the Food Law legal framework. So I must admit that I was there from the very beginning, but by pure coincidence. And so but I’m really a specialist and I cannot do anything but food law.

Carmen Cracknell: Interesting. Yeah, it’s funny how life leads us in these kind of obscure directions.

Katia Merten-Lentz: Yeah, yeah.

Carmen Cracknell: The idea of novel foods, has that existed for a long time? Or is this something that’s just come about recently with the advent of things like in vitro meat?

Katia Merten-Lentz: The concept of novel food dated 1997, which is a cut off date reference. The entry into falls of the first regulation, which had the ambition, the aim to put some conditions before placing on the European market something which could be considered as new. Because at the time already the safety was a big concern and the European Commission to assure the European citizen that all the public body at both at the national and the European level care of their health. Yeah, decided to regulate any kind of new food and new ingredients to make sure that they are safe.

Carmen Cracknell: What are some examples of novel foods that are out there right now?

Katia Merten-Lentz: Right now, we are talking about very more innovative novel food, but I can mention, for instance, insects. They were in debate for details. For instance, I’m French, I live in Brussels and during several years between, I would say 2015 and even 2010 and 2018, there was a very different approach and interpretation regarding the status of insect. In Belgium, they considered that whole insect was not novel and could be processed, consumed as such. And on top of that, the Belgium government published a sort of decree, a circular naming of 10 categories, 10 species of insect, wholly and totally and officially noticeable on the market, if I may.

Meanwhile, in France, they said no way could be the whole insect. It could be a part of an insect. It could be floor from insect. We don’t care. Insect is considered novel. So any part, any processed part of the insect has to be authorized within the novel food regulation. Otherwise, it is forbidden to place it on the market. So it could be the novel food approach means that something which could be a raw material, a fruit, a vegetable, a piece of meat, up to something very highly processed and highly technological obtained was not consumed as such before 1997. And now this cut off date reference is quite an old one. We are back almost 30 years ago. So more and more often when startup or even a large company comes to me saying we have something quite new, but come on, it’s just potato. For instance, I say, oh, tell me more about your just potato, because if it’s a skin on which you apply, I don’t know, precision fermentation and the result is very new and was not at all consumed like that as such before 1997. It is considered novel, despite the fact that we all knew potato as a raw material.

Carmen Cracknell: Yeah, it’s interesting, because I think in a lot of places in the world, insects would be considered just part of the standard daily diet, like in in Asia, I had insects. So I guess, presumably, there are sort of restaurants and shops in Europe that already sell insects, I would imagine.

Katia Merten-Lentz: Yeah. And I must insist on the fact that when we mentioned this cut off date reference of 1997, it means that this conception had to be regular and legal, not in the pocket of a coat or something on a strange network. So yes, even if some restaurants are part of a community based on their traditions used to consume, for instance, insects, it doesn’t, it doesn’t, it doesn’t consist of an evidence or some clue to open a door for novel food authorisation.

Carmen Cracknell: So a lot of the arguments for lab grown meat are very valid, protecting the environment, stopping mass harm to factory farm animals. So presumably, there’s also a financial incentive behind it as well. There’s money to be made in this industry. But what are the challenges in particular, regarding lab grown meat from a regulatory perspective, with getting it approved and put through? I know when we spoke before, you said it can take about two years, the costs can be as high as 300,000 euros. Is this off, are the current policies off putting for a lot of companies?

Katia Merten-Lentz: Oh, you asked me many questions.

Carmen Cracknell: Yeah, sorry. I did.

KATIA: I will answer all of your questions. Regarding, but maybe, you know, sort of in order, in a nutshell, lab meat, generally called cellular meat or cell meat is without any doubt, a novel food because of course, we haven’t eaten such a meat before 1997. In terms of cost, the cost for a novel ingredient generally, depending of course, on the data which are required. But if we are talking about the full range, the full box of data with genotoxicity with everything, we are for any kind of novel ingredient around 300,000 euros. So it’s not something specific because we are talking about cultured meat. Okay. The interest of cell meat, of course, is to answer the concerns and the growing concerns of consumers regarding sustainability, regarding animal welfare. The question up in the air is what will be the reaction of the consumer and will they really react in total favor of the cell meat because it’s cell meat is not really meat.

Will maybe the consumer be reluctant, considering that the cell is more important than the meat? In other words, will the consumer be reluctant because of the process of production or will they be totally fond of and it will be really appealing for the consumer to eat something which is derived from an animal without all the environmental issues and concerns. At the time, it’s difficult to have a firm opinion because as you know, the US and Singapore have already given the green light to the placing on the market of cultured meat. So far, it’s only distributed in restaurants. But anyway, it means that the consumer can have access to cultured meat.

But personally, I do not have any real figures. I don’t have any precise view of is it a real success or not. And in the EU, and that’s the reason why maybe you have heard that we said that Europe is falling behind, is not on the role regarding regarding cell meat. Yes, I know my firm, I am about to submit for the first French chicken cell meat. And I know we are all in due course to submit in front of the European Commission and the European Food Safety Authority. So it’s just a question of time. But you know, here the but is that very surprisingly, Italy and France, and really ahead of this process of assessing the dossier and giving a green light or some down very surprisingly, Italy is about to have officially a ban to put a ban on any conception and any placement of the Italian market of cell meat.

And on a legal perspective, I’m very surprised how can they do that, the head of again, any submission, because once the European Commission and the FSA, we can imagine give the green light and authorize officially on the union list, the placement of the market of any type of cell meat. How can Italy tell no way we are not, for instance, within the legal framework of GMOs or other regulation where it’s possible because in the regulation, you can find some safety clause or something less than steel or safety clause. It’s not at all the case for the normal food regulations, the normal food regulation. It’s very harmonized and at a higher level, the highest level, it’s an harmonized regulation. So I’m very surprised. In France, it is less strong, but the same spirit, the Ministry of Agriculture stated officially that they will do everything in order to get more time and not to see any cell meat on the French market. So yeah, the debate is quite hot.

Carmen Cracknell: Yeah, I can understand that people with, I mean, Italy and France have such strong food cultures and such major traditions of food. I can understand how there would be opposition. And I have heard that farmers have been working with companies developing lab meat, but obviously they would, I would presume be in the most part opposing it, the whole farming industry would be against it. Is that the major blocker to this becoming a bigger thing and it going through regulation?

Katia Merten-Lentz: Well, I would say that any traditional system is reacting to innovation and culture meat is of no exception. Personally, I haven’t heard anything regarding a sort of collaboration between traditional farmers and the cell meat industry, because you are not at all talking about the same thing. They just have animal in common, but one, it’s a full animal in the countryside and living and there’s the other one on using cells. So on the principle, I guess that the farming industry can stand against the cell meat industry, but cell meat industry will not do not pretend to have the ambition to replace the farming industry.

So there is of course a place for everybody, a home for everybody. So for me, the best place now would be to live one next to the other and try to find their own way in terms of less, how do you say, intensive agriculture practices in one way and the meat industry and the cell meat industry not to be too ambitious to say a loud voice, we will replace the livestock. But I don’t think that they will communicate like that. So the future will tell us how it will work. But for sure, at this stage, the farming industry is not really in a friendship relation with the cell meat industry.

Carmen Cracknell: I can imagine. And you mentioned the Italy and the different European countries approach and obviously Britain’s left the EU. Brexit’s had an impact on all regulatory policies and this is no exception. When we spoke before, you said the EU’s laws were seen as way too strict. So I know that you know a little bit about the UK context. How is the UK opening the door to innovation and deviating from the EU approach on this?

Katia Merten-Lentz: At this stage by statement only. I have a pretty good knowledge because I was asked to be an expert in many UK audits specifically regarding the possible new novel food approach. What is sure is that European novel food procedure was considered to be stricter than procedures in other jurisdictions. But I must say that we are very proud of that saying and considering that we have the highest level of safety in the world. But for years, even before the Brexit, I remember that the UK was a bit complaining saying, “Oh, this regime is too strict.”

Anyway, is course obtaining a novel food authorization remain a lengthy process. And we are talking about more or less two years just for the submission. But it means one year, one year half depending again on the data and analysis which are required to prepare the submission. After Brexit, the UK had no choice but continued to follow the European model. At least to preserve and to keep the commercial exchange relationship. And so they kept on saying and stating that they want to push for more flexible innovation. That they really, if I remember well, the expression was opening the door to innovation.

The only concrete action to me was last February when the FSA asked for private consultancy to evaluate the current novel food landscape, which is still the same as the European one. And it was not justified because of cell meat or very innovative thing, but because to the extent of my knowledge, they were literally flooded by CBD notification. And so FSA tried and is still trying to find a better way to address all these so many submissions. And so the report suggests potential reform. But one of these suggestions were to better tailor the needs of the UK. But it means for me, it’s more blah, blah than something really concrete.

Carmen Cracknell: Yeah, up to this point. I know that you said you don’t have any figures on the financial aspects of this, but presumably the focus in the last few years on ESG has had an impact in increasing financing in this area and increasing interest in investment in it. What’s the, yeah, sure, go ahead.

Katia Merten-Lentz: I just was about to say, I do not have precise figures. I am just a lawyer, but what I could tell you is that definitely now for less than a decade, I’ve been more and more involved in due diligence for investment funds. They asked me to set to evaluate the potentiality and the compliance of the ingredient, which could be the core business of the startup that you would like to put some to finance and to support by the part it didn’t happen. They didn’t even think of asking me such an assessment. And now I’m really an official expert. And they say, please, before starting any kind of financial support to the startup. And so my perception through this path is that, yes, the financial support is pretty massive. They seem to have a lot of money to put on the table to support and to set by to match the most appealing and the most, how can I say, the one which I cannot find my word today with, I mean, the most interesting future on the market. So, yeah, the investment could be quite massive.

Carmen Cracknell: And this is from ESG funds or just all round?

Katia Merten-Lentz: Just around. Yeah.

Carmen Cracknell: Okay, well, that brings me to the end of my questions. I mean, I find this so interesting as a topic. Do you have any other, have I missed anything? Are there any other questions I should have asked that you’d like to ask?

Katia Merten-Lentz: No, you’ve got a good one. No, no, no, very well.

Carmen Cracknell: Yeah, no, I’m really interested in it.

Katia Merten-Lentz: I’m doing hours about novel food. I saw it’s so interesting.

Carmen Cracknell: Yeah.

Katia Merten-Lentz: No, no, no. Yes, just to sum up here, massive, massive advancement. Now, what I could ask as a conclusion is now since we have this new regulation in Europe dated 2018, I have now sufficient experience to say and to confirm that for the European Commission, innovation is a tool now. And the European bodies do not anymore consider innovation as some things they need to really to put constraints on. The European Commission really wants now to accompany as efficient as possible the food business operators. And it’s definitely the case, because thanks to this new regulation, we have a very strict timeline, deadlines and and guidances. And so it’s pretty clear how to submit and how get if you submit a good dossier, you will get a brilliant green light. It works. It’s my day to day business and work. So I can confirm this.

Carmen Cracknell: Does that reflect a changing attitude of the Commission towards innovation in all sectors, just a drive towards innovation in general?

Katia Merten-Lentz: Definitely.

Carmen Cracknell: Interesting.

Katia Merten-Lentz: Until until 2018, as the European Commission was a bit reluctant saying, what is this innovation? Innovation means a danger. Okay. It would be unsafe. And now they say, okay, it’s a tool for innovation, you need to be competitive, a tool for competition. The food business operators need to be competitive on a global market. And it’s a role and it’s a mandate of the European Commission and the other public bodies, it could be national and European to support food business operators all along their innovation path. And it works very well.

Carmen Cracknell: Interesting. Well, thank you so much for joining me, Katia. It’s been a really interesting show.

Katia Merten-Lentz: Thanks to you, Carmen, for asking. It was a pleasure.

Carmen Cracknell: Definitely.

Katia Merten-Lentz: At your entire disposal for any topics only related to food.

Listen to the audio.