The battle over the regulation of ‘fake meat’ is heating up. Also known as lab-grown, lab produced, or cultured- the meat is a point of contention between the FDA and the USDA. It can be plant or animal based, and is engineered in a lab to look, smell, and taste like conventionally produced meat. The technology is improving all the time, and many anticipate that more products will begin to reach the shelves of consumers sometime over the next five years.
Fake meat will compete for market share with meat that is produced in the conventional manner. So what happens with it now could have big implications. One of the disputes between the FDA and USDA is over how the food should be marketed and labeled. The other is which agency should regulate its production. Let’s take a closer look at the latest developments.
Both USDA and FDA Want to Regulate Fake Meat
The FDA made a strategic move last week. They held a public hearing to discuss the regulatory oversight of fake meat products. Chris Clayton of DTNPF discloses how the hearing went down. The daylong event in Maryland was hosted by the FDA. Meat industry experts were allowed to be panelists for public comment, but ironically, the USDA did not formally participate. It’s not clear why.
The two agencies share some similar responsibilities when it comes to food inspection. The FDA oversees around 80% of food products, and currently has regulatory authority over gene editing in food producing animals. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) takes the lead on traditional meat products like beef, pork and poultry. According to federal law, any food labeled as “meat” falls under USDA jurisdiction. The White House Domestic Policy Council recently held a meeting with the two agencies to discuss the regulation of fake meat. One would assume that they’re working together to figure it all out.
The USDA appears willing to cooperate. A spokeswoman for the USDA commented in regard to the FDA’s hearing:
“As these new products begin to emerge in the marketplace, we look forward to working with the FDA and the public to tackle these issues. We have nothing further to add.”
The FDA’s move to hold the public hearing was an opportunity for them to lay out the reasons why they should continue to regulate fake meat. Lobbyists who had worked under the USDA on the oversight of lab grown meat said that the USDA staff were surprised to learn about the hearing.
Conventional Producers Back the USDA
Right now it’s not really clear which agency will end up with jurisdiction. There’s a feeling at the USDA that the FDA “literally stole” their plans for having a public comment period. Danielle Beck, the director of government affairs at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) took the opportunity to speak at the hearing in support of the USDA.
“This is building up to be a turf battle between USDA and FDA over who has regulatory authority over cell-cultured meats. It is starting to be a little bit concerning, I think, from our perspective, or a lot bit concerning.”
“At the end of the day, regardless of the production method, any product that is compositionally meat, or a meat food product or a meat byproduct as designed through the CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) under the Meat Inspection Act, all fall under the same jurisdiction which is USDA FSIS.”
Other meat industry leaders spoke out at the hearing. By and large, most were in support of the USDA’s legal authority to regulate fake meat.
The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) wasn’t happy about the FDA’s move, and called it a “Regulatory land grab.”
The National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) also stepped in for the hearing. Genetically modified yeasts have been developed to produce proteins similar to those in milk. The FDA has asserted jurisdiction over these developments and products, and the agency has failed to enforce labeling standards. Now here we are with dozens of different kinds of “milk.” Beth Briczinski, NMPF vice president for dairy foods and nutrition said,
“What began as a clever marketing tactic has led to the rampant abuse of legally defined dairy terms, while FDA has looked the other way.
So what’s happened with milk could also happen with fake meat. Plant based milks have been marketed as nutritional equivalents or healthier alternatives to cow milk. In calling the products “milk,” they also take advantage of milk’s decades of marketing.
Many conventional producers and the organizations that represent them feel that fake meat producers want to have things both ways. They want the lighter touch of the FDA’s regulatory oversight, but want to market their products as meat. In a news release the NPPC said:
“While the viability, production practices and environmental impact of these products are shrouded in secrecy, the misleading marketing plans of the companies producing such products are clear, with animal imagery and terms such as “clean meat” and “prime beef” used in their packaging prototypes.
NPPC president Jim Heimerl also wrote in the release.
“While we know very little about the production methods of laboratory-produced cultured products, alternative protein companies are clearly working to present their products as real meat while seeking FDA oversight that would allow them to avoid rigorous inspection, labeling scrutiny and other regulations faced by livestock agriculture.”
Conventional meat producers argue that fake meat is still meat, and it should be regulated the same way.
The FDA’s Side
What is the FDA’s argument? Broadly speaking, the FDA sees the term “food” as giving them the authority to claim the primary position of regulation and move forward. Susan Mayne, the director of food safety and applied nutrition at the FDA commented at the hearing:
“These are still early days, but make no mistake, FDA has been preparing for this for quite some time. This is not our first rodeo, so to speak. We have multiple authorities and programs that can support efforts to bring products with new ingredients in the market.”
The FDA has already been working with fake meat producers for several years as the companies prepare for regulatory approval and access to the market. So the history is there. The FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb also argues that new agricultural technology is a step ahead of the regulators. Meaning: the FDA are the experts when it comes to fake meat. Not the USDA.
Where do we go from here? If the FDA remains in control in the regulation of fake meat, there could be some major implications for the future of conventional meat producers. At the hearing, the NPPC pointed out how important gene editing will be for the pork industry as a whole. It will impact not just meat production, but food safety, animal health and welfare.
“As a result, an animal health breakthrough that will dramatically enhance animal care and food safety and support economic prosperity in rural America faces an impractical, lengthy and expensive approval process that will render it unavailable to American farmers while countries around the world realize its potential. FDA oversight will treat any gene-edited animal as a living animal drug – and every farm raising them a drug manufacturing facility – undermining U.S. agricultural competitiveness relative to other countries with more progressive gene editing regulatory policies.”
The NPPC wants the Trump Administration to shift regulatory oversight from the FDA to USDA’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service. This agency already regulates gene editing in plants. So that’s a possible solution.
The US Cattlemen’s Association (USCA) filed a petition earlier this year pushing for stricter labeling requirements. They want fake meat to be called something else- not “meat” or “beef” at all. The state of Missouri has already passed a similar restriction. Another avenue to clarify which agency has jurisdiction is the farm bill. The USCA is trying to get some clarification over regulation into the bill. They want a provision in the farm bill conference report to clarify the matter once and for all.
We need to decide what we’re going to call fake meat. Then, we can figure out how to regulate it. If this clarification is put into the farm bill, it’s possible that the regulatory battle over fake meat between the FDA and USDA could end quickly. Otherwise a longer, more drawn out fight is likely. We’ll keep you posted.
Image courtesy of the Fence Post