U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, has asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office to look into whether cell-cultured food products have, or require, a specific regulatory framework and how other countries are handling the issue.
DeLauro's letter, dated March 28, noted while cell-cultured meat, animal-free dairy milk and other products aren't yet commercially available, introducing them into the nation's food supply and economy "raises many important questions."
The lawmaker asked the GAO to review and respond to questions, including challenges in overseeing the safety of cell-cultured foods in the United States, and what regulatory framework and labeling requirements, if any, exist in the United States to oversee cell-cultured food products.
The technology used to produce cell-cultured meat — which is made by growing animal cells in a lab — is complex and very expensive. The resulting products don't quite fall under the umbrella of animal agriculture, but they aren't completely separate from it, either. Animals may not be slaughtered to produce cell-cultured meat, but muscle cells must be taken from animals in order to grow it.
The U.S. Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service is in charge of overseeing meat, poultry and eggs, while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is responsible for fruits, vegetables and pretty much everything else that FSIS doesn't handle. FDA also regulates labs where products are made from human tissues, blood and cells.
There are times when their jurisdictions overlap, so it may seem like cell-cultured meat should fall within FSIS' purview, although the FDA's lab oversight responsibilities tend to blur the line.
There are other questions cell-cultured meat brings up, such as what exactly meat is and whether or not it needs a standard of identity like milk. USDA defines meat one way when it comes to labeling and another where inspections are concerned. If no slaughtered animals are involved, perhaps the regulation of cell-cultured products should be handled somewhere beside FSIS.
Another forthcoming product dwelling in a regulatory gray area is one from Perfect Day, a California startup using yeast to produce milk proteins such as casein and whey before combining them with additional ingredients to create an "animal-free milk." The milk proteins are the same as the ones from cows, although company officials can't call their product milk because FDA standards of identity define that term as a cow's lacteal secretions.
Perhaps cell-cultured meat should be in a category of its own, like the European Union's approach. The 28-member states adopted new regulations for "Novel Food" on January 1, DeLauro said. They cover those items that haven't been "consumed to a significant degree by humans" in the EU prior to May 15, 1997, which is when the first such regulations went into effect.
It's no surprise that DeLauro made this GAO request. She keeps a close eye on the food industry and is an outspoken critic of the current U.S. food safety regulatory regime, which includes varying degrees of oversight from 15 different agencies. DeLauro has sponsored legislation to create one overarching and independent agency to regulate all food products; the bill has stalled in Congress.
Answers to many of her regulatory questions should be forthcoming once the GAO responds. In any case, cell-cultured meat, poultry or fish products are a long way from hitting the marketplace at a reasonable price point to compete with the real thing, so there may be sufficient time for the government to settle these issues beforehand.