There's The Beef But Where's The Cow?

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FILE - In this March 29, 2006, file photo, a wide variety of cuts of meat are displayed at the meat section of Cub Foods grocery store in a Burnsville, Minn. Standards proposed Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015, by the Agriculture Department aim to reduce rates of salmonella and campylobacter, another pathogen that can cause symptoms similar to salmonella, in chicken parts, ground chicken and ground turkey. (AP Photo/Jayme Halbritter, File)

The Senate Agriculture Committee takes up the 2018 farm bill this week amid some optimism that bipartisan support will allow it to advance where its House counterpart failed . The unwieldy, more than 1,000-page document covers everything from food stamps to farm subsidies to trade and conservation policy, but it does not address a new technology rocking the food industry – cell-cultured meat.

Lab-grown meat

Also called “clean meat,” “synthetic meat,” “lab-grown meat” or “in vitro meat,” cultured meat comes not from slaughtered animals, but from a laboratory using tissue engineering techniques like those used in regenerative medicine. Scientists have been experimenting with replicating living tissue cells in culture since the 1970s, and interest in the technology has increased dramatically over the last decade. Supporters include PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), which offered a prize for anyone who could develop an in vitro chicken; and billionaires Bill Gates and Richard Branson, who have both invested in lab-grown meat companies in the hopes that cultured meat will reduce the resource demands of raising animals and produce lower cost food for the world’s growing population.

Environmental and public health advantages?

Proponents say cultured meat offers several environmental advantages over traditional meat production. It could reduce the land acreage dedicated to grazing animals and growing their feed. It could also reduce emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock sector contributes 14.5 percent of human-related greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Finally, improperly managed runoff from animal manure can damage water quality. Lab-grown meat poses none of these environmental challenges, and is arguably more humane. (Starter cells can be collected harmlessly from living animals.)

It may also have public health benefits. Since many foodborne pathogens (like salmonella and E. coli) live in animals’ intestines and are spread through their wastes, the process of slaughtering animals and butchering meat can lead to contamination of the food supply. That would not be a concern for lab-grown meats, which don’t have intestines and don’t poop!

Role for regulation

While you can’t buy cultured beef, chicken or seafood in your grocery store today, several companies are working to change that. Before they can succeed in commercializing their products, however, regulators have to make some important decisions, and that’s where Congress and the farm bill come in.

All food is subject to regulation to ensure its safety to humans, but who does the regulating can be confusing. Congress has split responsibility between the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In general, USDA regulates beef and poultry products and FDA regulates all other food. (This explains why USDA regulates your pepperoni pizza but FDA regulates your cheese pizza!) Eggs are a little more complicated; FDA regulates eggs sold in their shells, while USDA regulates processed eggs.

Given these overlapping jurisdictions, which agency should regulate cultured meat? On the one hand, USDA might claim authority because it is responsible for meat from cows and chickens, but its approach to regulation (continuous visual inspection of slaughterhouses and packing plants) may not translate well to meat that is grown in a lab. (What would continuous inspection look like in a laboratory context?) Because cultured meat doesn’t come from a slaughtered animal, it could arguably belong in FDA’s jurisdiction, even if the end product were hamburger or chicken breast. FDA already regulates plant-based meat substitutes, and its risk-based regulatory approach is based on "good management practices" rather than continuous inspection, which may be more appropriate for lab-grown products.

A related question is: how should the product be labeled? The beef industry (which sees cultured meat as a threat to its livelihood) is of two minds on this question. In February, the U.S. Cattlemen's Association (USCA) petitioned USDA to define “meat” as something produced from slaughtered animals, a definition that lab-grown meat obviously could not meet. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, on the other hand, has argued that these products should be called beef, perhaps on the rationale that such a definition would give regulatory jurisdiction to the USDA. Not only are USDA’s regulatory practices generally more cumbersome, but its closer ties to the cattle industry may portend policies that would better protect their interests.

Congress must act

Cultured meat holds the potential to produce high quality, lower-cost protein, with fewer pathogens, and fewer undesirable environmental side-effects. Whether consumers will actually accept lab-grown meat is an open question, but one that should be decided in the marketplace. Poorly designed regulatory policies (or years of litigation over who has authority to regulate) could foreclose innovations in this area, and that is a real risk if Congress doesn’t act.

FDA’s experience regulating similar meat substitutes and food products that are grown rather than raised, as well as its risk-based regulatory framework make it more likely to regulate in a way that allows innovations in this technology while preventing adverse consumer consequences (rather than attending to competitors’ concerns). The 2018 farm bill should clarify FDA’s authority in this new area, and let the emerging companies scale up their production and compete for consumer demand.