The 82 words that could shape the future of clean meat

A Congressional subcommittee on US government spending this week voted to advance a bill to the full, 46-member House Agriculture Committee that would give the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) authority to regulate how cell-cultured meat products are labeled and inspected for safety.

Here’s what the provision, tucked into page 90 of the proposed spending bill (pdf), says:

For fiscal year 2018 and hereafter, the [Agriculture] Secretary shall regulate products made from cells of amenable species of livestock, as defined in the Federal Meat Inspection Act, or poultry, as defined in the Poultry Products Inspection act, grown under controlled conditions for use as human food, and shall issue regulations prescribing the type and frequency of inspection required for the manufacture and processing of such products, as well as other requirements necessary to prevent the adulteration and misbranding of these products.

Previously, the question of how so-called “cellular agriculture” food products should be regulated was being hashed out internally by the USDA and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The inclusion of this new provision indicates there’s enough political will by meat-industry lobbying groups—known collectively as “The DC Barnyard”—to try and shape the future regulation of cell-cultured meat (also referred to as “clean meat”) through an act of Congress. The USDA has a dual role of promoting and regulating agriculture, and newer food-technology companies fear long-tenured interest have enough political clout within the agency to make it a lot harder for them to get high-tech meat to market.

“We are surprised and dismayed that anyone in Congress would hand down these dictates on American small businesses without including anyone from those businesses in the discussion,” says Jessica Almy, a spokesperson for the Good Food Institute, which lobbies for the clean-meat industry.

The main beef lobby, though, says the message to cell-cultured meat companies is simple: If they want sell their products on the market as meat, they need to be ready to follow the same rules and regulations as established meat groups.

“I think that [Congress] providing input to USDA and FDA on this issue will push the process forward,” says Danielle Beck, of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Beck says that if the USDA claims authority over clean meat, the government agency will lead a transparent process for ironing out finer details in which all industry groups can participate. Not everyone agrees.

“If you are in the cellular-agriculture business and you think this is all benign, you’ve lost your mind,” says Stuart Pape, a Washington lobbyist and former FDA official who has represented the interests of the cell-cultured meat industry. “This provision is the product of the cattlemen exercising some political muscle.”

The big question now running through the heads of cell-cultured meat company executives and their lobbyists is how to combat the meat industry’s maneuver and stop such a substantive piece of legislation from becoming law via an appropriations bill, which dictates how the government spends tax dollars. One way to strike it from the bill would be to convince lawmakers on the House Agriculture Committee to fight to remove it.

The provision has a long way to go before it becomes law. Now that the appropriations bill has advanced from subcommittee, it will have to survive several weeks of scrutiny from the full House Agriculture Committee, then the floor of House of Representatives, then the Senate Agriculture Committee, and then the floor of the full Senate. In other words, a lot could happen between now and then, and there’s a good chance the bill will wind up getting wrapped into what’s known as an omnibus bill, a giant piece of free-for-all legislation from which the provision could be scrubbed by a lawmaker sympathetic to the clean-meat industry.

In late February, the US Cattlemen’s Association filed a petition to the USDA asking the agency to define meat in such a way that it would exclude cellular-agriculture products. A similar, larger trade group, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, filed a comment asking the agency to deny the petition but to assume authority over the regulation of clean meat, which it derisively refers to as “fake meat.” Some clean-meat groups have pushed back, arguing regulation of cell-cultured meat products should be regulated jointly by the FDA and USDA.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group, says there are still enough unknowns around clean-meat production that it would be improper at this time for lawmakers to step in and dictate what agency is best suited to lead the regulation of such products. The group argues that science and public health should take precedence over political maneuvering by interest groups and that those conversations are best left to be hashed out between regulators within USDA and FDA.

Connecticut congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat, in March called on (pdf) the Government Accountability Office to study how cell-cultured products should be regulated, and what roles the FDA and USDA—both of which have expertise in food safety—might be equipped to assume. DeLauro argues that congress shouldn’t be making any decision on the matter until more information is collected and assessed.

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

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