It will be considered a win—at least initially—by most of the fledging food technology startups that are looking to bring cell-cultured meat to market.
In an announcement (pdf) today (June 18) by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency’s top official said increased interest by consumers and companies in so-called “clean meat” merits a public hearing in July to further discuss how such products will be regulated for food safety. Clean meat is a meat product grown from animal cells that does not require animal slaughter. The agency meeting is designed to give cell-cultured meat companies the opportunity to publicly share with FDA officials their cases for why their products should have a place in American grocery stores and restaurants.
But layered in the statement by the FDA is an important development in the discussion around clean meat. In the last several months, a debate has arisen over whether the industry should be regulated by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees meat products at the point of slaughter, or the FDA, which is charged with regulating foods made from “components” of food.
Some of the biggest players in the meat industry are pushing for the USDA to regulate, even though there is no animal slaughter involved in the production of clean meat. The proposition unnerves some in the clean-meat industry who believe entrenched meat lobbying groups have an undue and threatening amount of political clout within the agency.
The FDA’s move to assert its own authority to establish and regulate food-safety requirements, as laid out in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, adds a new contour to the debate. It undercuts maneuvering by groups that include the powerful National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), which are seeking to draw regulation of clean meat companies into the fold of the USDA.
“This is definitely surprising, but we look forward to engaging,” says Danielle Beck, the NCBA director of government affairs. Beck adds that the FDA may have a role to play, but that if clean-meat companies want to sell their products as meat, they should be regulated as meat products. The NCBA plans to submit written comment for the July 12 meeting, and have a representative there.
The Good Food Institute, which supports and lobbies on behalf of clean-meat companies, also saays there’s room for the FDA and USDA to work together in regulating the new food technology. They disagree over which agency should take the lead—GFI’s Jessica Almy says it makes sense for the FDA to take charge—and more fundamentally, just how the products should be marketed and labeled.
To be sure, even if the FDA ends up assuming responsibility for clean-meat safety, that doesn’t ensure a clear path to the market for startups in the nascent industry. Just last week, for example, the agency did not give its full food-safety approval to an ingredient used in Impossible Foods’ plant-based burger product, signifying it is taking extreme precaution with new protein products.
In any case, almost everyone wants to at least have this discussion and figure it out. “The leaders of the national and global meat industry want to feed the world animal protein in a sustainable way,” says Josh Tetrick, CEO of the clean-meat company JUST. “That’s a shared interest that should be celebrated. And I’m grateful to see the FDA bringing all us together to talk about making it happen.”