High-tech meat may make it to market faster thanks to an industry truce

The battle over meat.
The battle over meat.
Image: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
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A Silicon Valley cell-cultured meat company has brokered a deal with a major meat industry player that may help new cell-cultured meat products get to the consumer market sooner than anticipated.

In a letter signed and sent to the White House today (Aug. 23), Memphis Meats and the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) asked president Donald Trump to move forward with a plan that could settle the controversial debate over how cell-cultured meat products should be regulated by the American government. The industry-backed plan would have the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) share joint oversight over these new meat products.

Should the White House accept and implement the proposed plan, it could mean these new products—grown from animal cells without ever having to slaughter an animal—will get to market sooner than expected. The agreement would give the handful of new “clean meat” companies a clearer pathway to market, and allow them to potentially avoid a protracted fight with US meat industry groups over how they should be regulated.

Under the plan, the FDA would be responsible for ensuring cell-cultured meats undergo pre-market safety tests. The USDA would be responsible for potential continuous monitoring of cell-cultured meat-processing facilities, in much the same manner that it already oversees the processing of foods such as chicken nuggets and hot dogs. The USDA has inspectors in more than 6,000 slaughter and processing facilities in the US.

Still, only two groups signed onto the letter, and it remains to be seen whether other cell-cultured meat companies and meat industry groups will warm to the idea of joint-agency oversight. The major beef, pork, and chicken trade associations in July sent a letter to the White House asking that the USDA have full oversight powers over cell-cultured meats. NAMI had signed onto that letter as well.

“We think it’s great that a cell-cultured company is willing to acknowledge the USDA’s own expertise and a USDA regulatory component,” says Danielle Beck, the director of government affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Still, more nuanced discussions about cell-cultured meat regulation, including just what the products will be called called, will need to take place before other meat groups sign onto a similar initiative. Traditional meat groups and farmers despise the nomenclature “clean meat,” which has become a popular marketing term used by cell-cultured meat advocates.

The letter to the White House is the latest development in what has been an intense fight between the conventional meat industry and a handful of food technology upstarts who seek to create similar products in an entirely new way. The USDA and FDA have engaged in a public spat over which of the agencies should have the authority over cell-cultured meats, with seemingly little direction from the White House over how to resolve the issue. The letter represents what may wind up being an industry-backed first step toward settling that debate.