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The FDA regulates food. USDA regulates meat. So who gets to regulate lab-grown meat?

The FDA regulates food. USDA regulates meat. So who gets to regulate lab-grown meat?
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The FDA regulates food. USDA regulates meat. So who gets to regulate lab-grown meat?

Silicon Valley is likely to embrace the announcement, while ranchers and meatpacking see it as a mistake.

Health News Science Tech

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced its intent to regulate lab-grown meat—a declaration that provides some clues about how the federal government will treat a new technology that upends some notions about food and agriculture.

In some ways, it’s unremarkable that lab-grown meat would fall under FDA’s purview. FDA is the federal agency that’s already in charge of ensuring the safety of most foods, from Hot Pockets to baby carrots and coconut water. What is surprising, though, is the agency’s signaling that it wants domain over a meat product. That’s always been the responsibility of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

In theory, USDA regulates meat, poultry and most “egg products,” like pourable egg whites, and FDA regulates everything else. In practice, the relationship between the two agencies is byzantine. A jurisdictional disagreement over mislabeled egg rolls led to a protracted regulatory standoff last year; FDA is responsible for closed-faced sandwiches, while USDA regulates their open-faced counterparts. This announcement suggests more confusion. While USDA will continue to regulate meat from animals, FDA wants to oversee cell-cultured meat grown in labs.

This move will likely infuriate traditional meat companies, who likely feel that USDA has their interests at heart.

Politico reports the announcement, which comes ahead of a public hearing on lab-grown meat’s safety scheduled for July 12, has caught USDA off guard. If FDA is preemptively seizing turf here, then Friday’s letter from its chief Scott Gottlieb provided a rationale: Traditional meat might be USDA’s territory, but so-called “clean” meat is more like a drug than a food.

In his letter, Gottlieb indicated FDA would regulate lab-grown meat because it has the potential to resemble other medical advancements, like growing human organs from scratch. That’s not a stretch. As lab-grown meat gets more complex, and begins to resemble actual bluefin tuna steaks, instead of a tube of fish paste, it will require the kind of structuring, or “scaffolding,” that scientists are already using to emulate human lungs and livers.

Lab-grown steaks, and other foods that resemble actual animal muscle, are likely years away from hitting supermarket shelves. Though leading companies like Just Foods and Memphis Meats are working on growing duck and chicken meat from animal cells, culturing them with protein serum, and growing them to scale in bioreactors, the resulting products are still paste-like in consistency. (Think pâté or foie gras.) For now, cellular agriculture is a fermentation process, which is how beer, cheese and medical products like insulin (all of which fall under the purview of FDA) are made.

Proponents of cellular ag argue that USDA is ill-equipped to evaluate products that don’t involve animals.

The fact that FDA is already thinking about how lab-grown meat is produced, approved for safety, and even marketed on shelves could be a sign that the agency wants jurisdiction over such products for the long haul.

That’s likely to infuriate traditional meat companies, who likely feel that USDA has their interests at heart, and not those of lab-grown competitors. Politico reports the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, which has pushed legislation that would prevent Silicon Valley companies from calling their products meat, was “dismayed” the agriculture department was not included in the announcement.

But proponents of cellular ag argue that USDA, which is historically tasked with slaughterhouse safety and the inspection of animal carcasses, is ill-equipped to evaluate next-generation products that don’t involve animals.

“The nascent clean meat industry needs as much regulatory certainty as it can get, and it needs regulatory partners who are familiar with the science these start-ups are doing,” Paul Shapiro, the former Humane Society vice president, and author of Clean Meat, tells the New Food Economy in an email.

FDA is accepting public comment on animal cell-cultured foods through September.

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