It might sound like a science fiction novel, but we can expect to see burgers and chicken nuggets produced through animal-derived cell culture appearing in high-end grocery stores in the next few years. While the folks in these food startups are a long way from being able to mimic something nuanced and marbled like a ribeye steak, the prospects of ground beef or chicken produced without slaughtering animals has got many people’s attention.
Although the products might appeal to consumers who have misgivings over consuming meat, the lab-grown products are not expected to displace a significant share of farm-raised meat and poultry in the marketplace. Nonetheless, these products will always generate red-hot controversy because they will be marketed as a better, more humane and environmentally friendly alternative to animal agriculture, making them a kind of protest food.
One of the most contentious facets of the debate surrounding the cell culture meat industry is determining which federal agency or agencies will regulate the products. That entity or agencies will determine how to regulate the technology from a safety standpoint as well as the labeling and product names that will be allowed in the marketplace.
On Nov. 16, 2018, the Trump administration announced an outline of its plan to regulate animal-derived cell culture technology. Instead of placing all of the responsibility with one agency, the plan is for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to regulate different aspects of the products. Specifically, FDA will oversee the initial stages of production for lab-grown products, including collecting cells from source animals, storage methods and cell growth.
Next, the Trump administration has suggested FSIS should regulate the production and processing of cell culture products as well as the labeling. If this plan is finalized, FSIS will be responsible for regulating producers to ensure the products are wholesome and free of pathogens. FSIS will also decide what the products can be called.
This proposal plays to both agencies’ strengths. FDA has extensive experience in regulating cell culture technology for medical applications, such as biologics. Also, FDA typically has responsibility for evaluating and approving new food ingredients before they can go into the human food supply. Similarly, FSIS has extensive experience in regulating meat and poultry processors for compliance with food safety and labeling regulations.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the debate on animal-derived cell culture technology is the product labeling. Livestock and poultry producers are concerned such products could be labeled in a manner that sheds an unfavorable light on meat and poultry products. Proponents of lab-grown products have often used the term clean meat to describe their products, inferring their products are cleaner, safer and have a smaller environmental footprint. On the other hand, many in the livestock sector refer to the cultured products as fake meat or synthetic meat; they haven’t forgotten what happened with plant-based “milks.”
With labeling under FSIS control, every product label would have to be preapproved by the agency to ensure it is truthful and not misleading. This will rein-in companies that would otherwise get a little creative in describing their product or distinguishing it from conventionally produced proteins. FSIS is likely to disappoint some farmers and ranchers who would prefer to prohibit using the terms “beef” or “meat” to describe lab-grown products, but I predict the agency will require labels clearly identifying these products as “cultured” or “cell-based.”