USDA Accepting Public Comments on “Clean Meat” Labeling Petition

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On February 8, 2018, the United States Cattlemen’s Association (USCA) filed a petition with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) requesting that the Agency establish a food labeling requirement that the term “beef” only be used to refer to products that “come from cattle that have been born, raised, and harvested in the traditional manner.” If USDA takes the requested action, manufacturers of new “clean meat” products would be prevented from labeling their products as “beef” or “meat.” Industry stakeholders and other interested members of the public may submit comments on USCA’s petition until April 23, 2018.

The term “clean meat” refers to products that are grown in cell cultures from animal stem cells (also called “cultured meat” or “synthetic meat”). The processes for clean meat production have developed along with broader advances in tissue engineering, many in the medical field. As clean meat products move out of the laboratory and closer to the marketplace, political and legal attention is shifting to those products in turn. At least one company aims to have clean meat products on the market before the end of 2018.

In an early showing of opposition by the livestock industry, the USCA petition contends that the terms “meat” and “beef” should not be used to refer to products “coming from alternative sources such as a synthetic product from plant, insects, or other non-animal components and any product grown in labs from animal cells.” USCA argues that meat substitutes and clean meat do not fall under the definitions of “beef” or “meat” stated in dictionaries, regulations, and statutes (namely, the Federal Meat Inspection Act and USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service regulations). USCA further argues that the purported mislabeling of alternatives and synthetic products leads to consumer confusion. Accordingly, the petition asks USDA to prohibit the use of “beef” or “meat” on such product labels.

If USDA takes the requested action, it could have implications for the labeling of plant-based meat substitutes beyond clean meat, mirroring some of the longstanding friction surrounding vegetarian and vegan products that use terms that refer in some way to animal products in their names (e.g., soy milk or almond milk). Those supporting clean meat products contend that the products, while still under development, can help address animal welfare and environmental challenges associated with meat production. Supporters, which include various environmental advocacy groups, argue that clean meat products are equivalent to meat products from livestock and argue that the term “meat” encompasses cell-cultured products by definition. It remains unclear how consumers in general will perceive such products, notwithstanding USDA’s ultimate decision on the use of labeling terms.

The petition does not directly address how USDA should view meat derived from cows or other livestock bred with any kind of genetic engineering or gene-editing techniques (i.e., CRISPR). Such animals would be born, raised, and harvested in the traditional manner, but their genetic stock might be changed by biotechnology techniques. While these products are still under development and have not yet reached the market, industry stakeholders should consider the potential impacts of any USDA labeling policies for clean meat on food products that may be derived from gene-edited livestock in the years to come.

The period for public comment on the USCA’s petition runs until April 23, 2018. The petition and public comments may be reviewed here.

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