Lab-cultured meat debate just getting warmed up

posted Aug. 13, 2018 8:56 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Dave Dickey

You probably have never heard of the startup company Memphis Meats. Based on its name, you likely figure it is based in Memphis, Tenn., and its stock and trade is meat.

You would certainly be wrong on location — it calls San Leandro, Calif., home. And as to the meat ... well, that is yet to be determined.

Memphis Meats is in a technology race with Israeli company Aleph Farms and others to grow what it calls “clean” meat for human consumption in a laboratory from animal cells sooner rather than later. The hope is the public will be eating this stuff by 2021.

Cargill is a player, having purchased an undisclosed share in Memphis Meats. And the same with Tyson.

What’s to be determined — and by who — is whether this stuff is meat, can be labeled as meat and which agency in the federal government will regulate this type of technology.

Cue the theme from Jaws and enter the clash of federal titans U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration. Needless to say, the stakes, and the potential for profit, are huge for Tyson and Cargill.

There are two separate but interlocking debates raging in Washington, D.C. One is what on earth to call this stuff on retail labels should it ever reach grocery freezers. Memphis Meats likes clean meats. But the meat industry absolutely hates the idea and thinks it should be a non-starter. After all, the implication is what humans have been eating for, like, the last 6,000 years is somehow dirty.

Other labels being kicked around for petri dish-grown animal cell stuff include cultured meat, cell-cultured meat, cell-based meat, imitation meat, synthetic meat, craft meat and yes, even fake meat.

As you can probably guess, what it’s ultimately called will play a significant role in whether it’s accepted by the public.

The second debate is which federal agency should regulate this cell generation technology. A traditional USDA role is to oversee meat inspections. USDA also has specific regulations for the labeling of meat. So if this stuff is “meat,” should not it fall under USDA’s jurisdiction?

The FDA, on the other hand, concerns itself with “standards of identity” that numerate the ingredients that can go into products with specific names. So should not FDA have jurisdiction if the stuff is ultimately labeled “clean meat”?

No easy answer. The FDA created a little ripple in the debate by jumping the shark last month and holding a public meeting to make the case for its jurisdiction. By the way, no official from USDA was invited to offer a view. Let that sink in a moment.

Meanwhile, some lawmakers are beginning to get up-to-speed on animal cell technology. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office asking if animal cell technology needs a new regulatory framework.

Before the dust clears, this food fight will make the first Rocky Balboa-Apollo Creed fight look like a walk in the park.

Dave Dickey spent almost 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor.

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