Characteristics of cell-based meat matter for labeling, meat lobby says

The FDA and USDA agreed in 2019 to share regulatory duties for cell-based meat.

When it decides how to label cell-based meats, the government should base its decision on their characteristics — their meatiness — rather than their production method, suggested trade groups representing meatpackers and the start-ups growing meat in the laboratory. The groups raised the issue in a letter to FDA and USDA on Monday that advocated mandatory labeling of cell-based meat.

“Market entry is fast approaching and there is significant interest in the regulation of these products, particularly regarding applicable labeling requirements,” said the North American Meat Institute and the Alliance for Meat, Poultry and Seafood Innovation.

The FDA and USDA agreed in 2019 to share regulatory duties for cell-based meat. The FDA would oversee cell collection, cell banks, and cell growth and differentiation. The USDA would oversee production and labeling of meat developed from cells of livestock and poultry. The FDA has sole oversight of cell-based seafood and has called for public comment on how to label it.

An array of farm and livestock groups say terms such as meat, poultry, or roast should be reserved to describe flesh from food-bearing animals such as cattle, hogs, and poultry. To them, lab-grown meat is fake meat that should not be sold as meat. The high-tech companies developing cell-based meat call it a “clean meat” that does not involve slaughter and requires less land and fewer resources such as water and grain to produce than livestock.

“Historically, in evaluating the labeling of food products developed using new methods or technologies, FSIS (a USDA agency) and FDA have focused on characteristics of the finished product rather than the process by which the food was made,” said the letter from the trade groups. When there are substantial difference, food makers are required to say so on the label. But cell-based meats may have a range of final characteristics, so labeling may require careful evaluation, said the groups. “FSIS has indicated that careful consideration relating to product characteristics is needed to inform labeling decisions for such products.”

With that in mind, the trade groups urged the USDA to begin the rulemaking process so it can gather information about the characteristics of cell-based meat and poultry. “This information will provide FSIS with substantive data…while also ensuring that the current labeling standards remain high.” Labeling requirements should be mandatory for cell-based meat, they said.

The FDA will accept comment until March 8 on topics that include the appropriate names for cell-based seafood, consumer awareness of names proposed for cell-based seafood, and how to assess differences between traditional seafood and cell-based seafood.

“Labeling ties in critically to consumer perception and so the success of this sector will turn, in large measure, on the nomenclature used,” Brian Sylvester of the law firm Covington and Burling LLP told Food Navigator when FDA called for public comment.

An estimated 40 companies around the world are competing to bring cell-based meat to the consumer. “We recognize that rulemaking can be time-consuming. It is possible and likely that cell-based/cultured meat and poultry products may be ready to come to market before FSIS’s rulemaking process is complete,” said the trade groups. Even so, the products would be obliged to have USDA approval of their labels before the products go on sale.

To read the letter to FDA and USDA, click here.

The Federal Register notice by FDA on labeling of cell-based seafood is available here.

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