Dan Murphy: Sound Proposal, or Flight of Fantasy?

September 12, 2018 10:05 AM
Unfortunately, we’re numb to the endless wrangling among federal agencies, Exhibit A being the alt-meat labeling battle. Too bad all those TV lawyers can’t intervene to solve the problem.

Over the years, we’ve watched plenty of lawyers dominate courtrooms during TV’s prime time programming, from the stars of old-school shows like Matlock, LA Law and The Practice to newer dramas such as Suits and The Good Fight to a slew of Law & Order spin-offs (while the original franchisee continues in endless syndication).

In the same vein, we’ve also been served up plenty of PR-esque pronouncements from advocacy groups and trade associations intended to leverage public policy, documents that are composed by real lawyers using carefully worded legalese so as to minimize any exposure to potential liability and/or to obfuscate the audience’s understanding of the issues when their conclusions are controversial.

The net result is a lot less entertaining than listening to Jack McCoy slice up a defendant on the witness stand.

However, there was a recent departure from those dense and turgid documents through which we journalists are required to wade hip-deep. The outlier is a letter sent jointly to the administration by the North American Meat Institute and Memphis Meats, one of the manufacturers of alt-meat products now flooding the marketplace.

In its letter, the principals issued a call for “regulatory clarity” as to how federal agencies monitor production and ensure food safety for products in the category now apparently to be identified as “cell-based meat.”

(A phrase that doesn’t inspire confidence that consumers will understand the underlying science of cellular production any better than they grasp explanations of genetically modified organisms).

Getting to the Bottom Line
In their letter, the two organizations requested that the administration establish a definitive framework for oversight of cell-based meat and poultry products, utilizing the resources of both the Food and Drug Administration and USDA in complementary roles.

“After pre-market safety has been established with FDA,” the letter stated, “USDA should regulate cell-based meat and poultry products, as it does with all other meat and poultry products, applying relevant findings from FDA’s safety evaluation to ensure products are safe, wholesome, and properly labeled.”

The CEOs of NAMI and Memphis Meats noted that such an approach would utilize the strengths and experience of both agencies, writing that, “FDA has extensive expertise regarding products produced using cell culture technology and USDA has a longstanding role in inspecting meat and poultry products.”

Interestingly, since Memphis Meat is onboard with the proposal, the letter noted that “cell-based meat products are an ‘and,’ not an ‘or’ solution” to the implied challenges of maintaining both production efficiency and food safety with regard to the nation’s protein-based food supply.

As the alt-meat — excuse me, “cell-based meat” — category continues to expand in the years ahead, I’m not sure how long manufacturers such as Memphis Meat will be comfortable being relegated to being merely an alternative to beef, pork and poultry. To listen to their activist cheerleaders, the goal is replacement, not supplementation, of the real deal.

But let’s cut to the chase here, and as TV lawyers are so skilled at doing, zero-in on the key issue underlying the need for “regulatory clarity” in the first place.

“As an industry, we are uncompromising on product safety and we recognize the importance of consumer transparency,” the letter stated. That’s a wonderfully upbeat sentiment, but leaving aside the ongoing court case in Missouri over whether or not cell-based meat can even be labeled as “meat.” The case would serve as an excellent script for an episode on one of the aforementioned legal dramas, and would be a serious and significant barrier to the NAMI/Memphis Meat proposal.

It’s a four-letter word — T-U-R-F — and it’s the modus operandi, the raison d’être of federal agencies: Get it, hoard it and never allow another agency to usurp even a fraction of a department’s current jurisdiction.

Keeping and protecting an agency’s turf is the reason there isn’t already a regulatory framework in place. It explains why the federal government hasn’t proactively assigned “complementary roles” to different agencies so that oversight for these innovative new alt-meat products could be quickly and efficiently implemented.

No doubt, FDA is well-equipped to assess the technology being used to create cell-based foods. That process isn’t much different from evaluating new drugs or medical equipment.

Likewise, it makes sense for USDA to simply absorb these new products into its current portfolio and impose the same HACCP-type inspection requirements on the alt-meat manufacturers as already are required for conventional meat and poultry processors.

Sensible as all that might be, I won’t be holding my breath waiting for an outbreak of harmony and cooperation between FDA and USDA.

I’ll be too busy binge-watching a bunch of TV lawyers solve problems like this one in less than an hour.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.

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