USDA News

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Department and U.S. Food and Drug Administration held two days of public meetings in October on the regulation and labeling of animal cell culture products.

The sessions allowed officials and stakeholders to present their views in a formal setting, but offered nothing conclusive on the issues.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb have promised to work together on developing the regulations and to issue a plan by next spring. However, this cooperative effort probably won’t satisfy the conventional meat industry, which wants the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to be in charge, and the emerging cell-cultured food industry that wants FDA in charge.

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association President Kevin Kester and President-elect Jennifer Houston said USDA should take the lead. Houston said USDA is well-positioned to apply current food safety processes to lab-grown “fake meat” products. Two-thirds of the facilities already overseen by USDA are “processing-only” facilities where harvesting of animals does not take place.

“Ensuring lab-grown fake meat products are subject to strong, daily inspection by USDA’s trained professionals is essential,” Houston said. “The health of consumers is on the line, and USDA is far better suited to ensure the safety of lab-grown products.”

Kester said USDA oversight protects consumers against false and misleading marketing claims.

“USDA can be trusted to enforce truthful, transparent labeling of the products under its jurisdiction,” Kester said. “Beef producers welcome competition, but product labels and marketing must be based on sound science, not the misleading claims of anti-animal agriculture activists.”

In his testimony North American Meat Institute Senior Vice President of Regulatory and Scientific Affairs Mark Dopp said, “That the inspection system FSIS administers is more rigorous than the one administered by FDA is undeniable. Administration officials have said as much. But I am baffled why those who advocate that FDA should have primary jurisdiction over cell-based meat products want to deny those companies the benefits of FSIS inspection.”

Dopp said USDA’s label-approval process “protects companies from frivolous lawsuits and gives consumers confidence that products are accurately labeled and not represented to be something they are not.”

Dopp also said NAMI, which represents packers, considers FDA-regulated plant-based products which are products but contain no meat to be “misbranded.

The U.S. Cattlemen’s Association and the National Farmers Union both testified in opposition to using the word “meat” for cell-cultured products.

“Meat is meat, and beef is bovine,” Danni Beer, a U.S. Cattlemen’s Association former president said. USCA, she added, “continues to oppose any use of the terms ‘beef’ or ‘meat’ on any product not harvested from livestock in the traditional manner.”

Beer said USCA is opposed to using the beef checkoff program to promote cell-cultured protein.

 “Since 1986, ranchers have been building up beef’s brand through a regular investment into a program known as the beef checkoff. Nearly $1.1 billion has been invested into the ‘beef’ brand since 1986,” she said.

“The alternative protein industry should not be allowed to villainize the beef cattle industry. U.S. beef is among the most sustainably produced beef in the world and we strive to better our cattle and beef product everyday,” Beer said.

Karla Hofhenke of the South Dakota Farmers Union said, “Allowing a protein that is grown in a petri dish to be labeled as ‘meat’ is misleading and creates consumer confusion. The only sure way to avoid misleading consumers is to restrict the definition of meat to the tissue or flesh of an animal that has been born, raised and harvested in the traditional manner,” according to news reports.

The National Farmers Union noted in its comments that it “opposes labeling of foods produced using cell culture applications as ‘meat’ and as related products such as ‘beef,’ ‘poultry’ and ‘seafood.’”

NFU President Roger Johnson has also said, “Lab-grown products are likely to be produced by large companies, including the major global meatpackers, exacerbating the anti-competitive practices facing family farmers and ranchers and the rural communities in which they live. Fairly and accurately labeling animal cell culture products would provide some protection for family farmers’ and ranchers’ market share.”

Peter Licari, chief technology officer for JUST, the San Francisco, California-based company best known for its eggless mayonnaise, said JUST is developing animal cell chicken that “looks like chicken when it is uncooked” and “looks like chicken when it is cooked. From an analytical perspective, it is comparable to conventional chicken.”

Licari said his company proposes “that labels for cultured meat products include the following elements: On the front and center of the label; the name of the brand (e.g., “Sunshine Meat Co.”); and just below the brand name a statement of identity which indicates that the product is cultured, as well as the species from which the product is derived (e.g., “Cultured Chicken Breast”).

Licari said JUST believes “this format satisfies regulatory and consumer interests, while fitting into previously approved formats.”

FDA initially challenged JUST’s labeling of its mayonnaise, but Licari said, “in the case of our product ‘JUST Mayo,’ we worked with the FDA to continue using the consumer-friendly term ‘mayo’ by agreeing to state ‘spread and dressings’ on the bottom left of the label, which appears as the statement of identity.”

“Similarly, our product ‘JUST Egg’ is a plant-based product which is branded as ‘JUST Egg’ to consumers, while the label for the product bears the statement of identity of ‘plant-based scramble’ to clearly communicate to the consumer the product they are purchasing.”

Throughout the two days, those who commented questioned whether the terms “clean meat,” “lab-grown” or “cultured” are appropriate for use and would be informative to consumers.

Larry Dreiling can be reached at 785-628-1117 or ldreiling@hpj.com.

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