Houston, Texas, USA : The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have agreed to share regulation of cell-cultured food products, they said in a joint statement, following a public meeting.
While technical details have yet to be confirmed, the FDA would oversee the collection and differentiation of cells—when stem cells develop to specialized cells— while USDA would oversee production and labeling of food products.
“This regulatory framework will leverage both the FDA’s experience regulating cell-culture technology and living biosystems and the USDA’s expertise in regulating livestock and poultry products for human consumption,” the statement said, adding that the agencies see no need for legislation on the matter.
The question of whether to approve cell-cultured food products has never really arisen in the US. In fact, several niche “lab-meat” startups already exist, but production costs are very high and nobody has a product that is ready to sell yet.
Californian company Just, known for its eggless mayonnaise, has said previously it plans to sell cell-cultured meat by the end of this year—and told AFP it looked forward to working with the agencies.
Others such as Memphis Meats and Mosa Meat, in the Netherlands, are working to get production costs down—with some backing from the agri-food industry.
The backers of “lab meat” argue avoiding slaughtering animals will reduce both suffering and greenhouse emissions—and is a sustainable option to feed growing populations hungry for protein.
“American consumers deserve a wide array of healthy, humane, and sustainable choices,” said Jessica Almy, policy director at The Good Food Institute.
But they are locked in disagreement with farming organizations about whether such products can indeed be called “meat.”
The authorities have made no statement on that—but the US Cattlemen’s Association welcomed the news.
“USDA is going to oversee labeling, which we are ecstatic about because the FDA does not require pre-market label approval… before the products hits the shelves,” said spokeswoman Lia Biondo.
US farm lobby wants strict definition of ‘meat’
US farmers and beef producers have joined forces to convince the government to prevent the “meat” label to be used on anything that is grown in a lab, rather than on the hoof. A major US agriculture lobbying group threw its weight behind an effort to keep the “meat” label off of lab-created products, including ones that employ animal cells.
The National Farmers Union (NFU) backed a petition by the US Cattlemen’s Association calling on the US Department of Agriculture to bar the term “meat” for alternative meat products.
“We are concerned with the recent introduction of foods composed of alternative protein sources that are being labeled and marketed as ‘meat,'” said Roger Johnson, president of the NFU.
He said his organization “embraces new opportunities… including further development of markets for plant-based and insect-based proteins.”
“However, we believe all food products should be clearly labeled in a manner that helps consumers make informed decisions and allows producers to differentiate their products.”
Products grown in labs using animal cells are “not derived from animals born, raised, and harvested in a traditional manner, and should not be permitted to be marketed as ‘meat,'” Johnson added.
The cattlemen’s association’s petition, dated February 9, noted that some major US meatpackers and companies in other countries were investing in synthetic products grown in labs using animal cells and known as “in vitro” meat, “bio meat,” “clean meat” or “cultured meat.”
“Alternative products, such as those described above should thus not be permitted to be labeled as ‘beef,'” the petition said.
Anything called meat, “is understood to be derived from animal tissue or flesh for use as food,” the cattlemen’s petition said.
Lab-grown meat could be in restaurants in 3 years
A Dutch company that presented the world’s first lab-grown beef burger five years ago said it has received funding to pursue its plans to make and sell artificially grown meat to restaurants from 2021.
Mosa Meat said it raised 7.5 million euros ($8.8 million), mainly from M Ventures and Bell Food Group. M Ventures is an investment vehicle for German pharmaceuticals company Merck KGaA. Bell Food is a European meat processing company based in Switzerland.
Smaller investors include Glass Wall Syndicate, which supports several companies looking into cultured meat or meat substitute products aimed at consumers concerned about the environmental and ethical impact of raising and slaughtering animals.
Maastricht-based Mosa Meat, which has in the past also received 1 million euros from Google co-founder Sergey Brin, said it hopes to sell its first products—most likely ground beef for burgers—in 2021. The aim is to achieve industrial-scale production 2-3 years later, with a typical hamburger patty costing about $1.
Environmentalists have warned that the world’s growing appetite for meat, particularly in emerging economies such as China, isn’t sustainable because beef, pork and poultry require far greater resources than plant-based proteins. Cows in particular also produce large amounts of greenhouse gas that contribute to global warming.
The big challenge is making meat that looks, feels and tastes like the real thing. Mosa Meat uses a small sample of cells taken from a live animal. Those cells are fed with nutrients so that they grow into strands of muscle tissue. The company claims it could make up to 80,000 quarter pounders from a single sample.
With a number of startups and established players hoping to make cultured meat on a big scale in the coming years, a battle has broken out over the terms used to describe such products.
Some advocates have claimed the term “clean meat” while opponents in the traditional farm sector suggest “synthetic meat” is more appropriate.