US ranchers want to use the federal government as a proxy to fight high-tech meat companies

The battle over meat.
The battle over meat.
Image: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
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The entire American beef industry is worried about Silicon Valley’s cell-cultured meat companies, and most want to take down the tech interlopers. But the industry is divided over how to do it.

The US Cattlemen’s Association (USCA) in February asked federal government regulators to adopt a definition for meat that would exclude cell-cultured products (often called “clean meat”). This week, though, the more-powerful National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) asked the same regulatory agency to rule the opposite. Both groups find the new food technology threatening, so it might at first seem head-scratching that they seek opposing results.

It boils down to a game of strategy. On its face, the NCBA’s argument is more contoured than the USCA’s. Right now, the US government has no clear plan for how to regulate clean meat products. Some people in this space say the task would fall to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which oversees dairy, seafood, produce, and packaged foods that included plant-based imitation meat products. Others say the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) would be a more natural fit because it’s already charged with regulating meat products as they go through slaughterhouses. And still others have argued it should be a combination of the two.

In its letter (pdf) to the USDA, the NCBA stakes an aggressive position toward cell-cultured foods that would put those products under the oversight of the USDA.

“If producers of lab-grown or cultured meat products wish to call these products meat, they must adhere to the same stringent food safety inspection standards and comply with the same set of labeling mandates as all other traditional meat food products,” the letter states.

In some ways, the NCBA is giving clean meat producers what they want: equal footing for their cell-cultured inventions among all meat products. But the NCBA may be using that to lure the tech companies into a regulatory trap. The USDA has long been criticized for its dual role of regulating and promoting agricultural industries. Some within the clean meat sphere have expressed a fear that they would not have the same degree of influence within the USDA as traditional groups, and so, under USDA regulation, they would be forced onto a lopsided playing field.

NCBA director of government affairs Danielle Beck says ranchers are happy to compete with cell-cultured and plant-based meat alternatives. “This isn’t about being protectionist in anyway,” Beck says.

The Good Food Institute, which supports and lobbies on behalf of clean meat companies, agrees with the NCBA that cell-cultured products should be defined as “meat.” But the group is not fully on board with the NCBA’s approach.

“I like that they want to see clean meat on equal footing with other types of meat,” says Jessica Almy, a lobbyist with the institute. She added that asking the USDA to unilaterally assert authority over clean meat products wouldn’t be appropriate, that jurisdiction is set by Congress.

A letter to the USDA doesn’t mean a regulatory decision is imminent. There are three major hurdles the beef industry will have to overcome if it wants the USDA to take on the bulk of the responsibility of regulating clean meat.

The dead end

In its letter to the USDA, the NCBA cites the definition of meat in the Federal Meat Inspection Act:

Any product capable of use as human food which is made wholly or in part from any meat or other portion of the carcass of any cattle, sheep, swine, or goats, excepting products which contain meat or other portions of such carcasses only in a relatively small proportion or historically have not been considered by consumers as products of the meat food industry.

The NCBA argues that since the stem cells used to grow clean meat are derived from parts of a carcass, it should be defined and regulated as meat.

There are two holes in this argument. First, clean meat companies are able to harvest stem cells from food animals without ever having to kill them, so there’s no carcass. San Francisco-based JUST claims it created a chicken-product prototype from cells collected at the tip of a plucked feather. And cellular biologists have said pork could be grown from cells in pig hair follicles.

The second problem with the NCBA’s argument is that, on their own, the stem cells used by clean meat manufacturers won’t replicate and grow into a meat product. They first must be introduced to a nutrient-dense liquid medium. That liquid could technically be considered a food additive, which would fall under the purview of the FDA.

The inspection question

USDA inspectors regulate meat from slaughterhouses. But there’s no slaughtering involved in clean meat production, and it’s not immediately apparent that the USDA’s food safety agency would have jurisdiction over cell-cultured meat manufacturing facilities.

The FDA is interested in food tech

Even if the USDA decides it wants to wade in to clean meat regulation, they may have to negotiate with the FDA, which seems to already be at work creating a regulatory pathway to market for cell-cultured foods.

Susan Mayne is the director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. On March 22, she spoke in San Francisco at the Future Food-Tech Summit to a packed room of food technologists and Silicon Valley CEOs. She not only gave a shout out to clean meat during her speech, Mayne invited food technology companies to actively engage the FDA to help develop the regulations necessary to ensure future food products are safe and labeled appropriately.

“I encourage you to work with FDA, to bring your brainpower and imagination to the challenge of feeding the world, helping people have healthier diets, and providing innovative new options for consumers,” she said.

The Good Food Institute says it plans to file a detailed response to the government next week. “I don’t want the US Cattlemen’s Association or the NCBA to back us into a corner,” Almy says. “I think they are trying to take control of this narrative and it’s not their story.”