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As USDA and FDA Agree on Oversight, Aggies Rail Against ‘Fake Meat’

In a step that moves a new industry closer to commercial reality, the premier federal food-safety agencies agreed on Thursday on how to jointly regulate cell-based meat, a laboratory-grown protein that farm groups call “fake meat.” The FDA will oversee cell collection and growth, while the USDA will oversee harvesting and processing, and have final say over labeling.

Despite farm groups’ opposition to cell-based meat, the FDA-USDA agreement was welcomed across the board as a wise collaboration that will take advantage of the expertise of both agencies. Ag groups generally cloaked their objections in statements that called for accurate labels and maintaining consumer confidence in the food supply.

Although cell-based meat is not yet approved for sale anywhere in the world, more than three dozen companies are racing to be the first on the market. There is intense speculation on how soon the breakthrough will come. Last month, Uma Valeti, the chief executive of San Francisco-based Memphis Meats, said his company “will be ready to go to market tomorrow” once the U.S. regulatory framework is in place. He expects to start small.

In their memorandum of understanding, the FDA and USDA said they will develop a more detailed regulatory framework and will determine if statutory or regulatory changes are needed. “The parties will develop joint principles for product labeling and claims to ensure that products are labeled consistently and transparently,” they said, although the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service will be in charge of labeling. The FSIS has preapproval authority, meaning companies will have to obtain the agency’s approval of the labels on their products before they can sell them.

“The framework announced today will ensure cell-based meat and poultry products are wholesome, safe for consumption, and properly labeled,” said the North American Meat Institute, speaking for the meat industry. The trade group said cell-based meat probably satisfies the USDA’s definition of meat and meat products.

An array of farm groups say such terms as meat, beef, poultry, and roast should be used only for flesh from livestock. The U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, an early advocate of restricting traditional meat terminology to livestock, said the USDA ought to create a new inspection stamp for cell-based meat so that there won’t be any confusion about the source. The larger National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) said, “Ensuring that all lab-grown fake meat products are safely and accurately labeled remains NCBA’s top priority.” The two largest U.S. farm groups, the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Farmers Union, say cell-based products should not be called meat.

“As consumer interest for cell-based meat continues to grow, we will work with both FDA and USDA to bring safe and truthfully labeled products to market,” said Valeti.  At the USDA Outlook Forum in February, he said that Memphis Meats “absolutely” sees a benefit from a label that is clear on how its products are made. “We see this as a way of differentiating ourselves.” All the same, Valeti said cell-based meat deserves to be called meat, since it is grown from cells taken from livestock.

Proponents say cell-based meat can be produced more rapidly and with fewer resources than livestock. Entrepreneurs face the challenge of scaling up to commercial volumes and reducing production costs to compete with livestock. The NCBA says there are unanswered questions about whether cell-based meat is equivalent to beef taken from cattle. Valeti says it will be easy to assure food safety in a cell-cultured facility.

The FDA-USDA agreement is available here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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