Fetal Bovine Serum: Growing Demand, But Challenging Supply

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the supply chain for meat has made the headlines numerous times, as COVID-19 outbreaks at meat processing plants have intermittently disrupted food supplies. While this has caused occasional inconvenience to consumers hoping to enjoy a delicious steak for diner, many other industries that rely on animal products are also affected when there is a pause in meat production.

Fetal bovine serum (FBS) is the most valuable byproduct of the beef industry. FBS is a key component in eukaryotic cell culture and is crucial in the development of vaccines and biologics. It is added as a supplement to cell culture media to create a suitable environment for cell growth, providing essential growth factors, hormones, lipids, and minerals that facilitate cell growth, function, and adhesion. In the rush to develop vaccines against SARS-CoV-2, FBS has experienced strong growth in demand from the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sector, offsetting decreased demand from academia and other end user segments.

Sourcing of FBS has always been complicated and has become even more challenging in the backdrop of a global pandemic. The availability of FBS fluctuates depending on global meat demand, seasonality, weather, and other factors. Additionally, the food and agriculture industry has been working for many years to reduce the number of pregnant cows slaughtered inadvertently, which is reducing the availability of FBS and pushing prices upward.

Disruptions at multiple points in the beef supply chain directly impact the available supply of FBS. In addition to health and safety among agricultural workers, another hurdle caused by the pandemic is disruption to the global movement of goods, which was strongly impacted in the early months of the pandemic. While global shipping is gradually recovering, the flow of goods is again threatened as COVID-19 case counts soar in many regions. This raises particular difficulties for the FBS industry, given that end users have strong preferences for or regulations mandating FBS country of origin.

The country of origin of FBS contributes to its perceived quality and price. Bovine serum for cell culture is generally only collected in countries where the risk of bovine spongiform encephalopathy is negligible. Traditionally, sera produced in Australia and New Zealand have been the most trusted, commanding the highest prices. More recently, serum originating from the US has also gained a reputation as a top tier product. Latin America is also a producer of FBS; FBS products from this region are often sold as “value” FBS. Given the sensitive nature of pharma/bio R&D, the sector generally uses FBS sourced only from New Zealand, Australia, or the United States.

The market for fetal bovine serum is examined in-depth in SDi’s recently released Global Laboratory Consumables Market 2020 report, which found that the market for FBS and other sera approached $700 million in 2019 and is projected to grow at a high, single-digit rate over the next five years. The report provides market size estimates and forecasts, segmented by product types, region, end user, and application, along with information on market participants and vendor share. In addition to cell culture sera, the report also covers a diverse range of other laboratory consumables, with chapters covering products in chromatography, cell culture, and life sciences.