Debate continues over how to label processed products derived from meat or plant cells, which many livestock groups have been calling “fake meat.”
Danielle Beck, director of government affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, says the ball is now in the USDA’s court when it comes to the labeling issue.
“The recent announcement on lab-grown fake meat regulations put USDA in charge of labeling,” she says in an email. “We trust USDA to oversee a transparent labeling process that is based on sound science. Crucially, this labeling process would occur before any products hit the market.”
Companies in the growing industry use science to grow what it claims is essentially the same thing as traditional meat. But no one can agree what to call it. Originally, there was a push for the label “clean meat,” according to Bloomberg News.
This was seen as a better alternative to the more clinical “lab-grown meat,” said Bruce Friedrich, co-founder and executive director of the Good Food Institute, which lobbies for these new products.
But then the traditional meat industry weighed in, saying the cellular version shouldn’t be called meat at all.
NCBA and other groups are asking the USDA to reject the use of the word “meat” or words associated with meat products on any item that has not been derived from traditional livestock production.
“NCBA policy is clear: The definition of beef should only include products derived from actual livestock raised by cattle farmers and ranchers and harvested for human consumption,” Beck says.
“We’re using the term ‘lab-produced cultured protein,’” Dan Kovich, deputy director of science and technology at the National Pork Producers Council, told Bloomberg.
Beck says the NCBA is coordinating with allied groups to make sure all lab-grown protein products are subject to the same food safety and labeling standards as traditional meat products.
Several companies are manufacturing both animal and plant cell-based products. Meat processing giants Tyson Foods and Cargill have invested in the industry, which analysts expect to see continued growth.
In August, cellular agriculture company Memphis Meats (which counts among its financial backers meat giants Cargill and Tyson) used the term “cell-based” in a letter sent to the White House.
The co-signer of the letter was none other the Meat Institute, the meat industry’s main lobbying arm.
“We thought it was reasonable and far better than ‘clean meat,’ which is inappropriate and inaccurate,” Eric Mittenthal of the Meat Institute told Bloomberg.
“I think the meat industry has done something very clever,” Sarah Sorscher, deputy director of regulatory affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer advocacy group, said in the Bloomberg report.
By investing in companies such as Memphis Meats, it now has a voice from within its own aspiring competition.
“They’re not up against the meat industry,” she said of meat substitute companies. “They are the meat industry.”
Beck says NCBA is asking the USDA to clarify the definition of a meat product.
“As long as we have a level playing field, beef will compete and win head-to-head with any product — chicken, pork, tofu, veggie burgers, or lab-grown protein,” she says.
“Retailers have the right to provide consumers with choice, but it is critical that consumers are given enough information to make an informed choice.”
She says it is essential that USDA provide labeling clarification.
“Criteria for statements and/or standards of identity should be determined once the scientific community, including meat scientists, have had the opportunity to evaluate the safety, composition, functionality, and sensory properties of the resultant product,” she says, adding “alternative products should not be allowed to use any descriptors that disparage real beef.”
Recently, the Missouri legislature passed a law that prohibits companies from labeling products as meat that do not originate from harvested livestock or poultry, according to reporting by Kurt Erickson for Lee Enterprises.
A lawsuit has been filed in Missouri by several companies, including a request to retain the right to label products such as sausage as long as the packaging contained a list of ingredients.
Friedrich said the law is “anti-competitive.”
“Americans don’t like censorship, and they don’t like the government picking winners and losers in the marketplace. We’re confident that the court will overturn this anti-competitive and unconstitutional law,” he said.
Barbara Kowalcyk, a professor in the department of food science and technology at Ohio State University, said there are still too many unknowns about the products and how they’re made — including food safety risks — for regulators to make any decisions.
“When I asked questions, there weren’t good responses, and that suggests we’re not ready for prime time,” she told Bloomberg. “Before we put it in the marketplace, we need to know the answers.”
Additional reporting by Deena Shanker, Lydia Mulvany and Teaganne Finn with Bloomberg News.