- The top item on the list of official 2019 policy priorities for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association is implementation of a regulatory framework for lab-produced and plant-based "fake meat." The NCBA announced its list of priorities at its annual convention and trade show held this week in New Orleans.
- The group wants the U.S. Department of Agriculture to oversee inspection and marketing of lab-grown and plant-based meat. The USDA and the Food and Drug Administration have agreed to jointly regulate cell-cultured meat, with the FDA overseeing cell collection and related processes, and the USDA having authority over production and labeling of the resulting food products.
- The NCBA's other policy priorities include trade and market access — which means reaching a trade agreement with Japan, promoting passage of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement and expanding access for U.S. beef in China, the U.K. and the EU. Also on the list is including an emphasis on information about the nutritional advantages of beef in the upcoming Dietary Guidelines for Americans in 2020.
The priority from the NCBA will not startle anyone who has been paying attention to the continuing debate over regulation of lab-grown and plant-based meat. As an indicator of how important the group views the issue, the NCBA also made "protecting the industry and consumers from fake meat and misleading labels on products that do not contain real beef" a top policy priority last year.
The cattle industry's argument against lab-grown and plant-based products is that none of them should be allowed to carry the label of "beef" unless they're derived from actual livestock raised by cattle farmers and ranchers and harvested for human consumption.
The U.S. Cattlemen's Association petitioned the USDA last year to limit the definition of "beef" and "meat" to products made "from cattle born, raised, and harvested in the traditional manner." The group's request would restrict from labeling any products "coming from alternative sources such as a synthetic product from plant, insects, or other non-animal components and any product grown in labs from animal cells."
This ongoing definition and labeling battle is reminiscent of that between conventional dairy producers and those who manufacture plant-based milk. The dairy industry is trying to keep plant-based beverage makers from using the term "milk" on their products. They have appealed to Congress and the FDA, gone to court and pushed for federal legislation to enforce the legal definition of "milk."
These industry groups probably wouldn't be so adamant about labeling restrictions unless they perceived a serious threat from lab-grown and plant-based products. According to data from Nielsen and the Plant Based Foods Association, sales of plant-based foods jumped 20% in the past year to more than $3.3 billion. Plant-based meat alternatives totaled $670 million in sales — which was a 24% increase from 2017.
And plant-based competition is ramping up — especially when it comes to meatless burgers at grocery stores. Beyond Foods' Beyond Burger has had a strong foothold in the plant-based burger space for years. This year, Lightlife Foods is rolling out a plant-based burger, Nestlé is launching a Garden Gourmet plant-based Incredible Burger and popular restaurant item Impossible Foods' Impossible Burger will join them in the grocery case this spring.
Lab-grown meat has a long way to go before it achieves mainstream market availability, although research shows a large chunk of U.S. consumers are willing to give it a try. Israeli startup Aleph Farms recently announced it had developed a cell-grown minute steak, Memphis Meats is working on lab-cultured meat and poultry — in which both Tyson Foods and Cargill have invested — while Finless Foods is producing algae-based shrimp using genetically engineered algae.
In order to convince the government to restrict labeling, the USDA petition will need to be successful, which could mean congressional input on the issue. Meanwhile, some makers of plant-based meat products don't see any reason to continue the battle since they say the two approaches should be able to co-exist. Beyond Foods CEO Ethan Brown told Capital Public Radio last year the company's Beyond Burger serves the same function as traditional beef.
"Why can't we call it a piece of meat?" he asked. "It has the same things in it, it presents the same way, and it performs the same function. A lot like we call the mobile phone a phone, and we don't call it a fake landline."