UPDATE: March 7, 2019: The U.S. Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration issued a formal agreement to jointly oversee cell-cultured meat and poultry for human food. Both traditional meat producers and those in the lab-grown meat space like Memphis Meats praised the announcement.
- The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration announced last week that they will jointly regulate cell-cultured meat.
- Under the regulatory framework, the FDA will have oversight on cell collection, banks, and growth and differentiation. While cells are being harvested, oversight will transfer to USDA, which will regulate the production and labeling of the resulting food products.
- There is still a lot to figure out, including technical details of how the FDA and USDA will collaborate and share information. The deadline to submit comments on how to best regulate cell-cultured meat has been extended to Dec. 26. However, the FDA and USDA said in their statement that since they already have the purview to regulate food and meat products, they do not think separate legislation on the topic is needed.
This announcement is hardly a surprise, considering the FDA and USDA made their intent to work together clear when they hosted a joint meeting on potential regulations last month. FDA — which oversees 80% of the U.S. food supply, mostly fruits, vegetables and prepared foods — started the public dialogue on how to regulate these products in July. The October joint meeting was scheduled as a response to criticism that USDA was not a presenter. The USDA regulates red meat, poultry and eggs.
However, to say there is a lot to work out is an understatement. Both FDA and USDA are already tasked with regulating the food system. But they aren't known for working together, even when it might make sense. In the classic example of the somewhat fractured way responsibilities are delineated the FDA regulates cheese pizza, but if there is pepperoni on top, it falls under the jurisdiction of USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service.
And now two jurisdictions that can't work together on pizza are jointly going to regulate a transformative and controversial segment of the food industry. This is certainly new territory. But, then again, everything about cell-cultured meat is new territory. Cell cultured meat brings together the possibilities of food science, an opportunity to make a meat diet more widely available and accessible, and the push toward environmental sustainability through cutting back on livestock farming.
Nobody has a product on the market yet, but several companies are working on it. JUST has pledged that cell-cultured chicken will be on the menu of some high-end restaurants before the end of the year, and Memphis Meats has set its sights on having products in stores in 2021. And some believe that as soon as technology and regulations develop to inexpensively scale and produce cultured meat, it will cause a permanent change in the industry.
Even though the USDA/FDA partnership will be completely new and different, those in the meat industry — both conventional and in the lab — were pleased by the announcement. The Good Food Institute, which works with and advocates for lab grown and plant-based meat alternatives, praised the fact that there is progress being made on regulation now — well before there are any products on the market.
"American consumers deserve a wide array of healthy, humane, and sustainable choices. That’s why cell-based meat deserves a clear regulatory path to market, as called for by the National Academy of Sciences," Jessica Almy, GFI's director of policy, said in a statement. "This announcement is an exciting indication that FDA and USDA are clearing the way for a transparent and predictable regulatory path forward.
"We are pleased that Secretary Perdue and Commissioner Gottlieb are so swiftly moving forward on cell-based meat and that they are aware of the importance of this industry to the U.S. economy," Almy continued. "The governments of Israel, Japan, and Singapore have already signaled significant interest in this important food technology, and so we share FDA’s and USDA’s commitment to ensuring a clear regulatory path forward for cell-based meat as quickly as possible."
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association, which has been strident in its opposition to calling anything grown in a lab "meat," was somewhat reassured.
“This announcement that USDA would have primary jurisdiction over the most important facets of lab-produced fake meat is a step in the right direction, but there is still a lot of work to do on this issue to ensure that real beef producers and consumers are protected and treated fairly," Colin Woodall, senior vice president of government affairs, said in a statement emailed to Food Dive. "We look forward to continuing our work with the Administration and Congress as this moves forward, and we continue to encourage producers to file official comments with USDA and FDA."
With USDA's pledged regulatory involvement, it makes it much more likely that these products will be labeled "meat." But what happens next, and the finer points of regulation, remain to be seen. Working together on this large issue might weaken some of the barriers between the FDA and USDA and make them more likely to collaborate. It also might make it more likely that the perpetually introduced plan to consolidate everything food safety under a single agency could become a reality.