Memphis Meats, a leading cell-cultured meat manufacturer, and the North American Meat Institute wrote to President Trump asking the administration to divvy up regulation of cell-cultured meat and poultry products between the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In their letter dated Aug. 23, the cell-cultured meat producer and the trade group asked that this joint role have the FDA oversee pre-market safety evaluations and the USDA ensure products are safe, wholesome and properly labeled — as it is already responsible for doing with conventional meat and poultry products.
Memphis Meats and NAMI also requested a meeting including the White House, the USDA, the FDA and both conventional and cell-based meat and poultry industry stakeholders to further discuss regulation of the sector. And, to help settle another dispute, they said they will describe products resulting from animal cell culture as "cell-based meat and poultry" rather than "clean meat" or other terms.
There has been a lot of debate recently in both animal agriculture and cell-cultured meat circles about which agency — the FDA or the USDA — should be responsible for the segment and what the benefits or consequences would be under each. This request to the Trump administration, written by representatives of both groups, could help lead to some kind of truce in this regulatory turf war if all the involved parties are ready and willing to move forward.
Cell-cultured meat and poultry present a regulatory conundrum for the USDA, which is more familiar with inspecting traditional animal slaughter and processing facilities than laboratories. That's why some involved in the new industry have advocated that the FDA be responsible for its regulation even though that agency generally doesn't oversee meat products. The FDA seems more interested in taking on the role, though, and held a public meeting last month to discuss potential regulation. There were no presentations from the USDA at the meeting.
"These are early days, but make no mistake that FDA has been preparing for this for quite some time," Susan Mayne, director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said at the meeting. "This is not our first rodeo, so to speak, in this area."
It may make more sense for the FDA to take the lead since the agency already regulates unusual food products, such as items containing algae extracts and the mold used in Quorn meat substitutes. But since the branded meat, poultry and seafood products coming from cell cultures are planning to use those terms on their labels, it's hard to imagine the USDA completely out of the regulatory picture — and many in the animal agriculture industry probably don't want it to be. Also, according to Quartz, there's been some insider speculation that President Trump could win points with American farmers and ranchers upset about his ongoing tariff wars with China, the European Union, Mexico and China if he were to take their side on this issue.
A joint regulatory effort could help mend fences between producers of the lab-grown products and producers of animal-based protein products if the administration agrees on the approach. It also could help move cell-cultured products to the marketplace faster, since companies wouldn't have to spend as much time, effort and resources fighting with traditional meat producers over labeling and other regulatory matters.
The debate over terminology remains, however, since agriculture industry groups and many individual ranchers are opposed to cell-cultured companies calling their products "clean meat" or even just "meat," even though they're made from animal cells. Many in the industry told Western Livestock Journal if these products don't come from "the flesh of an animal harvested in the traditional manner," they shouldn't be allowed to use the word "meat." Some producers of cell-cultured meat prefer the "clean" term — in part because consumers may be more likely to try it — although high production costs have kept that day a long way off.
Potential consensus from both camps will probably have to wait for the administrative response to the Aug. 23 letter from NAMI and Memphis Meats, and, if approval is forthcoming, the outcome of the requested meeting between involved parties. The White House may help move things along, but given all the issues waiting to be resolved, it may be nothing more than an optimistic gesture unless and until a more substantive agreement can be reached.