At FDA meeting, controversy over lab-grown meat

The Food and Drug Administration held a public meeting Thursday on the safety and labeling of alternative “meat” proteins produced with animal cell culture technology. In a packed room, a series of FDA employees, industry stakeholders, and scientists discussed current trends in the controversial sector, which some imagine could reshape how Americans consume meat.

As alternative meat products enter the market, their regulation has become a top issue for the food industry. The livestock industry has particularly pushed back on the arrival of these products, arguing that they falsely call themselves “meat” and should be held to higher regulatory standards.

The FDA and the USDA have battled over which agency should regulate animal cell culture technology. Some saw Thursday’s meeting as a way for the FDA to expand its influence in the emerging sector.

“This is not our first rodeo,” Susan Mayne, director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the FDA, assured the audience. “We have multiple authorities and programs that can support efforts to bring products with new ingredients to the market.” She said the FDA would hold a meeting in the fall for the agency’s science board on the issue of cell-cultured meat.

Speakers at the public meeting included representatives from many of Washington’s top animal advocacy and livestock groups, including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the Good Food Institute, the National Milk Producers Federation, Food and Water Watch, and the North American Meat Institute.

They used a variety of terms — clean meat, cultured tissue, cell-based meat, food produced from cell culture — to describe proteins produced from cultured cells. These word choices reflected the various organizations’ stances on whether proteins produced that way should count as “meat.”

Representatives from the meat industry echoed one another’s position that proteins made with animal cell culture should not be called “meat.” Rhonda Miller, past president of the Animal Meat Science Association, said that because of limited data on the safety of these products, “meat scientists do not have enough information about cultured tissue to determine whether it should be called meat.”

Maggie Nutter, a director of the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, agreed: “When other products use the term ‘meat’ or ‘beef,’ they are taking advantage of the years of hard work the beef producers’ checkoff has put in to advertise the benefits of beef.” Nutter said that such products should have their own checkoff program to fund advertising.

The other top issue was whether the FDA or the USDA is the appropriate agency to oversee regulation of lab-grown proteins. Tiffany Lee, director of regulatory and scientific affairs at the North American Meat Institute, said she was “both surprised and disappointed” that no USDA representatives spoke at the meeting, arguing that “clean meat” should be regulated by the same agency that oversees meat produced from livestock.

The National Pork Producers Council also weighed in via a statement. Calling the FDA’s oversight “luddite-like,” the group said FDA oversight “would allow [alternative protein companies] to avoid rigorous inspection, labelling [sic] scrutiny, and other regulations faced by livestock agriculture.” The NPPC said that the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service should oversee the products.

Several alternative protein companies made presentations at the meeting, including Memphis Meats, Finless Foods, Natural Harvest, and JUST (formerly known as Hampton Creek). The companies argued that alternative protein sources are more environmentally sustainable and could potentially ameliorate concerns about whether global food production will be high enough to support the world’s growing population.

Animal cell culture involves cultivating cells from live animals to produce meat-like products that mimic livestock meat. Because it doesn’t involve slaughtering livestock and because of its low general impact on animals, many animal welfare groups support the technology. “Clean meat offers real positive possibilities to eliminate the needless suffering of animals,” said Erica Meier, executive director of Compassion Over Killing, at the meeting.

The meeting addressed issues beyond meat products. A representative from the National Milk Producers Federation noted that the FDA has not addressed the group’s concerns about the common use of the word “milk” to describe beverages made from soy or almonds. “What began as a very clever marketing tactic has led to the rampant abuse of standardized dairy terms,” said Beth Briczinski, a vice president at the NMPF. “FDA has looked the other way” as non-dairy milks have become commonplace, thereby facilitating the rise of “clean meat” branding, Briczinski argued. “We now have an anything goes attitude in the marketplace.”

Many followed along via webcast and offered comments online. In a tweet, nutritionist and writer Marion Nestle weighed in on who should regulate cell culture technology. “Between the two agencies, I favor FDA,” she wrote. “USDA’s primary role is to support and defend industrial agricultural production. The agency tolerates, but is unenthusiastic about organics. It will do the same for lab-based meat.”

The FDA is collecting public comments on animal cell culture technology until September 25.