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Cell-cultured Meat

Cell-cultured Meat

When It Comes To Cell-Cultured Meat, What’s In A Name?

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Meat. Whether it’s part of your diet or not, you know what it is… or, rather, what it’s always been: protein (usually whole muscle) harvested from animals that were either raised on a farm or caught in the wild.
And no matter how you slice it, industrial-scale meat production is kind of a dirty business. Between the glaring animal welfare issues stemming from factory farm-style production practices and ecosystem depletion (both on land and at sea) to greenhouse gas emissions, it’s clear that the way we’ve been putting meat on the table has exacted a significant cost on the environment, the creatures we consume, and the people doing the labor.
Cell-cultured protein production promises beef without the cow, pork without the pig, poultry without the chicken, and fish without the… fish. But what will these products be called? At least in the United States, that issue is coming up for debate. 

No mystery in meat labeling

Between September 3 and November 2, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is soliciting input on the question at hand: how will meat or poultry products comprised of cultured animal cells be labeled on store shelves?
“If a new method of production or processing alters the biological, chemical, nutritional, or organoleptic [e.g. sensory] properties of meat or poultry to the extent that the resulting product no longer aligns with consumers’ expectations, FSIS establishes new label requirements to ensure consumers’ expectations are met.” 
Fair enough, right? The agency has previously implemented new labeling requirements on products containing mechanically separated poultry (MSP), for example, because MSP—often derided as “pink slime”—is substantially different from whole-muscle products.

Establishment interests weigh in

But now, if it tastes like duck, and cooks like duck, but never quacked like a duck because the product is the result of engineered duck cells, is it duck “meat,” with no other qualifiers?
It’s ultimately up to the agency to decide, but certain stakeholders have already made their opinions known. Returning to the Federal Register, FSIS outlines some of the discourse on the meat labeling issue:
  1. In February 2018, the United States Cattlemen’s Association (USCA) filed a petition with FSIS stating its position that the definition of “beef” should be limited to products “derived from cattle born, raised, and harvested in the traditional manner,” which would exclude foods comprised of or containing cultured animal cells. FSIS says that this petition received over 6,000 comments, mostly in opposition. But, as stated in the Federal Register, “nearly all [commenters] generally agreed that cultured meat and beef should be labeled in a manner that indicates how it was produced and differentiates it from slaughtered meat products.”
  2. In June 2020, the Harvard Law School Animal Law & Policy Clinic (ALPC) sent FSIS a petition requesting that the agency develop a labeling approach for “cell-based” meat and poultry products that respects First Amendment commercial speech protections. In its letter, ALPC asserts that “overly restrictive labeling requirements for cell-based meat products will likely drive innovation abroad and put the US at risk of losing its leadership status in the cellular agriculture field.” In keeping with ALPC’s position that cell-based meat labels are commercial speech protected by the First Amendment, the group’s policy recommendation is, in short, to assign labels on a case-by-case basis in line with food safety considerations. ALPC also recommended delaying implementation of new labeling requirements until more cell-cultured animal protein products hit the market, such that FSIS could better assess the actual need for such distinctions.
  3. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) stated in April 2020 that federal regulators lacked certain information about cellular agriculture technology, eventual commercial production methods, and the composition of final products. In other words, the GAO suggests that it is likely too early to make such long-lasting decisions about product labeling and that FSIS and related regulatory agencies need more information to make such policies. 

The public talks turkey about meat labeling

New comments on the proposed labeling rules are rolling into the FSIS policy’s page on Regulations.gov, a Federal Government website used to collect feedback from industry interests and the general public. Around 240 comments appeared within one week of the notice. 
SPEEDA Edge has compiled a sample of comments from individuals for and against the proposed labeling policy. They generally fall into one of three camps: opposition to labeling cell-cultured animal protein products “meat” (and/or general opposition to “lab-made” meat in general), support for distinguishing between cell-grown animal protein products and traditionally harvested meat from animals, and assertions that there should be no difference or distinction in labeling at all. 
These comments are presented verbatim and were not edited for spelling or grammar.
Here are some examples of comments skeptical of or otherwise opposed to labeling cell-cultured products as “meat” per se. 
  • “I feel this should not be labeled as meat. As almond and soy are beverages not milk, this should be labeled as lab grown protein, meat like product or lab (chicken, turkey, etc) protein. It should be clear that it was lab developed not slaughtered,” said Tammy Lesniak.
  • “Lab created meat should not be considered meat. There should be a separate category created and used for this type of product,” stated Cheryl Perry.
  • “No NO NO NO FAKE MEAT PARTIALLY FAKE MEAT !!! We can’t trust big business with our lives and health! We have no idea what they could add or use !! They already add a lot of animal parts are added that shouldn’t be now !!!” exclaimed Sandra Russell.
Most comments seem to advocate some sort of distinction, in kind rather than category, between cell-cultured products and traditionally harvested meat. Many commenters offer their own suggestions for how these products should be labeled. Here is a sample:
  • “I think calling it Cultured meat would work. I would avoid any names that could cause people to politicize it like eco/clean. Calling it labgrown kinda makes it sound too technical and doesnt sound appetizing,” said an anonymous commenter.
  • “I suggest cultivated meat to be labeled as Me-eat. Even if any name will be OK with me, I think USDA should look for an enticing name instead of going for a chase away name. We need that cultivated meat in the market, please help make it happen,” suggested Marina Sagardua.
  • “We must have transparency in our American food systems and supply to ensure know what we are putting into our bodies and therefore can ascertain what may or may not be impacting our health. Please ensure labeling meat and poultry products indicate use of culture cells derived from animals. Thank you,” said Dana Page.
Here are some comments from individuals who advocate that cell-cultured products should be labeled as “meat,” or should not otherwise be distinguished from traditional animal protein products:
  • “I think lab grown meat should be classified the same as farm-grown meat, and labeling should not be required to be different between the two,” noted Chris Gilardi.
  • “I believe lab-grown meat should simply be classified as meat The only difference is cultural. At the cellular level, it is the same. When it cooks, it will be the same,” said Cameron Hranac.
It’s clear from the sample of comments reviewed by SPEEDA Edge that individuals tend to fall on one side or the other; few commenters were truly undecided. 
These comments will be taken into consideration by regulators in their decision-making process. 

What’s the “beef”?

The question of what to call cell-cultured animal proteins will surely give regulators and the general public something to chew on, so to speak.
FSIS presented a list of 14 questions which, at least in theory, were meant to serve as prompts for specific bits of public feedback. However, as any longtime internet user can understand, the comment section can get kind of messy. SPEEDA Edge is not going to re-print all 14 questions, but from this sampling it’s clear that FSIS is trying to understand, at an almost philosophical level, what we’re talking about when we talk about “meat” in the 21st century and beyond:
  • Question 1: “Should the product name of a meat or poultry product comprised of or containing cultured animal cells differentiate the product from slaughtered meat or poultry by informing consumers the product was made using animal cell culture technology? If yes, what criteria should the agency consider or use to differentiate the products? If no, why not?”
  • Question 2: “What term(s), if any, should be in the product name of a food comprised of or containing cultured animal cells to convey the nature or source of the food to consumers? (e.g., ‘‘cell cultured’’ or ‘‘cell cultivated.’’)”
  • Question 3: “If a meat or poultry product were comprised of both slaughtered meat or poultry and cultured animal cells, what unique labeling requirements, if any, should be required for such products?”
  • Question 4: “What term(s), if used in the product name of a food comprised of or containing cultured animal cells, would be potentially false or misleading to consumers? For each term, please provide your reasoning.”
  • Question 5: “What term(s), if used in the product name of a food comprised of or containing cultured animal cells, would potentially have a negative impact on industry or consumers? For each term, please provide your reasoning.”
Most of the remaining questions deal with specific sections of US food code and get into some nitty gritty legalese, but these first few questions are probably worth pondering for yourself. Words matter and consumer sentiment about cell-cultured animal protein products will at least partially hinge on what they’re allowed to be called.

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