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Big Beef Wants to Stop Cell-cultured Meat

Posted in E. coli,Food Policy,Food Safety,Our Blog,Science on March 10, 2019

The National Cattleman’s Beef Association has released their list of priorities for 2019. According to a press release, they’re focusing on their efforts on a top priority that may be familiar to regular readers of this blog: stopping cell cultured meat and plant-based alternatives to meat. They don’t call it that, though. In their list of 2019 priorities, they make no bones about what they think these products should be called: “fake meat.” We get it. Big beef wants to stop cell-cultured meat. But why? Here’s the lowdown.

The National Cattleman’s Beef Association sees meat that’s grown in a lab rather than harvested from a cow as a threat. Not a threat to mankind or the environment, but rather, a threat to their wallets. Cows are their business, after all, and they represent the people who have built their livelihoods around raising cows as livestock. Americans love their beef, so business has largely been good.

The promise of beef that can be made without the cattle or the cattleman might upend all of that. Cell cultured meat hasn’t hit the shelves yet, but several companies are hoping to debut their own versions of it in the near future. Ditto for meat-like products that are derived from clever mixes of plant based ingredients.

The upstart businesses behind these potential products are hoping to offer up something that looks, tastes, and feels like meat for those of us who like the taste of a nice steak but but aren’t so fond of the negatives that have come to be associated with it: the possibility of subpar living conditions and suffering for the livestock that meat is harvested from, the looming specter of environmental degradation inseparable from industrial meat production, and the growing body of evidence linking meat-heavy diets to increased risk for heart disease, cancer, and other negative health outcomes.

The NCBA and other industry associations see cell-cultured meat as a threat. They’ve so far been divided over how to deal with such a threat. For example: who should regulate cell cultured meat? Should they lobby for meat grown in a laboratory to be recognized as meat and thus regulated by the USDA — a federal agency that’s charged both with regulating and advocating for meat producers and thus help to snuff out this new competitor in its infancy? Or should they push for cell-cultured meat to be recognized not as meat but as something else, thus denying it supermarket real estate and the legitimacy that the title “meat” brings with? That would probably mean that cell-cultured meat would be regulated by the FDA.

The FDA and the USDA have already announced that they’ll be jointly regulating the production and sale of cell-cultured meat. The USDA is going to be charged with regulating the production and labelling of meat that’s been grown in a lab or is derived from plant products.

That’s good news for the NCBA for the reasons mentioned above. The USDA is in part charged with advocating for their interests, and the cattlemen is hoping that the federal agency advocates for them in this case by shutting down a perceived threat. Last year, the NCBA petitioned the USDA to set rules for what is and isn’t meat. According to the website Food Dive, they asked the feds to “limit the definition of ‘beef’ and ‘meat’ to products made ‘from cattle born, raised, and harvested in the traditional manner.”

In other words: meat grown in a lab from a a culture, or derived from plant products, or produced through other clever combinations of stuff that isn’t the flesh of an animal (even though it is derived from animal cells) — none of it should be called meat, in the eyes of the NCBA.

As Food Dive points out, this is ground that’s been tread before. Specifically, the outlines of the battle around cell-cultured meat and plant based alternatives look a lot like the war that the dairy industry has been waging against soy milk, almond milk, and other plant-based alternatives to milk from cows. The dairy industry has been pushing back against these products being able to use the word “milk” since before they’ve hit the market. They’ve sued the companies that produce them and poured millions of dollars into lobbying for federal legislation to narrowly define what can be marketed as milk.

It isn’t clear yet what food safety issues might arise with cell-cultured meat or plant-based alternatives to meat. These products aren’t widely available as of yet, and we don’t know whether they’ll come with their own particular food safety problems. Only time will tell.

What we do know is that traditional meat harvested from livestock regularly makes headlines for outbreaks of salmonella, listeria, E. coli, and other common food safety culprits. The business of raising animals for their meat is messy; there are a lot of different ways that those animals can get sick, and there’s even more ways that meat harvested from them can be contaminated on its way to your dinner table.

A century of food-safety regulation has certainly made traditional meat safer than it once was. Refrigeration, germ theory, and a thousand other advancements in the science around meat have brought us to a point where you can buy meat at the store without undue worry that it will poison you. Livestock are living things, however, and they support whole microscopic ecosystems on their hides and in their guts. As long as this remains true, keeping out the bad microbes will be a difficult task.

One of the promises of cell-cultured meat is the notion that it could be grown and packaged in a sterile laboratory setting. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be mistakes made along the way that introduce dangerous microbes, or that they can’t find their way onto cell-cultured meat once it reaches your kitchen. What it could mean, however, is that you no longer have to worry about foodborne illness because the cow that you got your steak from was sick. That could be huge.

By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)