You can’t buy it at the supermarket. Not yet, anyway. But companies in the United States and abroad are growing meat from cell cultures in labs. And they’re hoping to eventually do to the deli what soymilk did to the dairy isle. They are calling this new phenomenon “clean meat.” But in the meantime, there are too many questions and details to cull through before this novel idea hits your burger bun.
Is it meat? Who will regulate it?
Lawmakers have taken notice and are mulling the question of how to regulate these novel inventions. Representative Rosa DeLauro asked the Government Accountability Office to look into how cell-cultured food products are regulated in a letter dated March 28th, 2018. Connecticut democrat requested that the GAO look into what regulations exist for meats, milks, and other animal products cooked up in a lab. She also asked the GAO to investigate how other countries regulate those products.
The Birth of Clean Meat
The idea behind cell-cultured animal products is simple enough – use genetic information or stem cells from domesticated animals to create imitation steak, chicken breasts, pork chops, egg whites, or milk. The practice is complex and devilishly difficult. Cells need to be cultured in petri dishes, but a steak isn’t just a slurry of muscle cells that you can grow in a plastic container; it has a structure to it, with layers of tissue, bone, and fat. To that end, some meat-culturing companies have turned to 3D printing, layering sheets of different cells on top of one another as an art forger might with paint.
Cell-cultured animal products aren’t available commercially, yet. But the meat industry in the United States is a $125 billion dollar market, as noted in DeLauro’s letter, and they have cause for some concern about lab-grown products elbowing in on their market share. For the vertically integrated poultry and pork industries, lab-grown substitutes might take a significant bite out of the sizeable fortunes of agribusiness giants like Tyson and Cargill.
The beef industry is wary, too. Raising cows comes at enormous cost; according to Popular Science, “a single pound of cooked beef, a family meal’s worth of hamburgers, requires 298 square feet of land, 27 pounds of feed, and 211 gallons of water.” The carbon dioxide outputs of the vehicles and machinery involved in moving those resources around, along with methane the cows emit as flatulence, accounts for nearly half of the world’s greenhouse gas output. Lab-grown beef might someday be able to create a very similar product at a fraction of the cost in raw resources and environmental damage.
A Mixed Bag
Industry advocates disagree on how to deal with the situation. In February of 2018, the US Cattlemen’s Association (USCA) petitioned the USDA to block cell-cultured products from calling themselves meat. They asked the USDA to adopt a definition of meat that drew a distinction between traditional animal products and imitations grown in a lab (sometimes called “clean meat).”
In response, another industry group – this one called the National Cattleman’s Beef Association (NCBA) – asked the government to do the opposite. They sent a letter to the USDA asking them to take jurisdiction over cell-cultured products derived from livestock and poultry. Right now, those products are regulated by the FDA.
These seemingly contradictory moves, as explained by Quartz, boil down to a difference in strategy. The NCBA has a peculiar relationship with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which straddles the line between regulatory agency and industry advocate. If the USDA regulates cell-cultured products, then those products will be subject to the regulations and strictures of the USDA. The hope is that the USDA’s existing regulations would prove onerous and ill-fitted to lab grown meat, putting an economic damper on the nascent industry. The USDA is furthermore a kind of home court for the NCBA; they have established connections and political pull within the agency, and may hope to tip the regulatory scales so that animal products are favored over those grown in a lab.
What do we call it? How do we label it?
The USCA, on the other hand, thinks that the label of meat is important. If cell-cultured products can’t call themselves meat, the thinking goes, then consumers won’t think of them as meat either. Despite advancements in the finicky biological engineering that goes into growing a steak in a petri dish, reviews of lab-grown meat are lukewarm so far; no startup is about to pass a blind taste test alongside to a genuine filet mignon.
The European Union and Australia both regulate lab-grown meat as a “novel food.” In the EU, that classification applies to food “not consumed to a significant degree by humans” before May of 1997. That includes new products like lab-grown meat, but it also applies to imports like chia seeds, compounds like vitamin K, and some newer extracts from plants and animals. One path forward for the United States might be to create a new classification for novel foods in line with EU regulations and thus sidestep the question of whether cell cultured food products are meat and thus subject to regulation by the USDA.
Amongst all the regulatory wrangling, it’s important to remember that we’re still years from a world where lab-grown meat is widely available. Science Focus writes that the world saw its first artificial burger in 2013. The beef patty was removed from a petri dish, cooked, and consumed at a press conference. In fact, those who ate it commented that it looked, smelled, and by in large tasted like the genuine real deal. The meat took two years and $300,000 to grow from the muscle cells of a cow.
Since then, startups have proliferated, seeking to improve on the money and time needed to grow a hamburger patty from scratch. There are star-ups making jerky, beef chips (think thin, crispy beefy chips), and even clean leather. They’re also in the business of improving the meat – namely, rescuing the taste and texture from the uncanny valley that opens up as you approach a simulacrum of the real thing.
By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)