As cultivated meat moves from the lab to the dinner plate following regulatory approval, consumers must not only enjoy the taste of the protein, but also trust it. With consumers voicing confusion, and now some states attempting to pass legislation as a barrier to sale, cultivated meat companies could have a plethora of legal issues ahead of them.
The onus is on producers to make consumers confident that cultivated meat is tasty, safe and “meat,” which means that what it is labeled as will be just as important as whether or not consumers enjoy it.
“The more visible a product is in the marketplace, the more susceptible it is to risk,” said Brian Sylvester, attorney at Perkins Coie, who focuses his practice on USDA and FDA regulation with an emphasis on alternative proteins and agricultural biotechnology.
Before regulatory approval was granted in June, there was a disagreement about what the product would be called. In 2019, after the USDA and the FDA agreed to jointly regulate alternative protein products made from cultivated meat cells in the U.S., they put out a formal request for input on issues like packaging labels.
Regulators landed on the term “cultivated meat,” and they all shared a common sentiment: these products deserve special labeling. Although big players in the space such as Upside Foods and Just Eat received the go-ahead, there are still gray areas. As more consumers eat the product, more legal risks could occur.
According to a study from the Singapore Management University, “cultivated meat” was the term most strongly associated with positive attitudes toward these products.
It also found the nomenclature and the way the product was portrayed to the public were the two biggest factors in overcoming a major barrier for the industry — consumer sentiment.
Federal regulators and companies selling the product have all adopted the words “cultivated meat,” but since 2019, lawmakers in many states have spoken out against the product and the terminology.
State governments make their move
This week, Florida House Republican Tyler Sirois proposed a bill that would challenge the regulatory progress made by cultivated meat in the U.S. The legislation would ban the production, sale, holding and distribution of cell-cultured meat within the state. Individuals who violate these rules would be criminally prosecuted.
Texas passed the most recent bill relating to the “labeling of analogue and cell-cultured products,” after it was signed into law by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in May. As of Sept 1, the bill said, cultivated meat products must have the terms “cell-cultured” or “lab-grown” on packaging near the name of the product.
This goes beyond the packaging requirements by the USDA and FDA.
The Texas Farm Bureau also said on their list of priorities that they “support making it illegal to use deceptive labeling of food products to influence consumers to purchase the product.”
Missouri was the first state to take matters into its own hands in 2018 when they set requirements about when the word “meat” was allowed to be used. Kentucky, Arkansas, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota and Wyoming all enacted similar legislation in 2019.
On the other end of the spectrum are organizations like the Good Food Institute which have come out to say that label censorship both threatens a free market and is unconstitutional.
Once cultivated meat has the capacity to enter the retail space on grocery shelves and compete with its animal meat counterparts, if tough legislation like these states have pushed for make it to law, more questions will be planted in consumers’ minds. Supporters of the laws argue that they protect the livelihoods of those in the cattle industry, and the integrity of the food we eat. Opponents claim the laws are a threat to the future of food technology.
Increased exposure equals increased risk
Exposing cultivated meat to more consumers simply puts companies like Upside Foods and Eat Just at more risk of litigation, of course.
From a consumer class-action perspective, companies will be more at risk to lawsuits regarding the claims made about the product and how it’s labeled, Sylvester said. For example, if a consumer were to have an adverse allergic reaction due to consuming a particular food that they thought was something else due to how it was labeled, companies could potentially be liable.
Opponents include groups like the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, who believe that labeling such products as “meat” is misleading.
Although the litigation risk may be a factor for cultivated meat companies easing into the retail space, both Sylvester and Tommy Tobin, an attorney within the food and agriculture division at Perkins Coie, stressed the main driver at play here is consumer acceptance.
“Litigation risk is something that these companies like Upside Foods, Eat Just and Believer Meats are keeping top of mind as products do become more visible in the marketplace,” said Tobin. “But a lot of this has to do with consumer acceptance.”