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Foods made from animal cells are currently caught in a turf war between the nation's two food inspection agencies, largely brought on by labeling concerns and each side's interpretation of where their jurisdiction lies.

In years past, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service has overseen meat, pork and poultry products and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration regulated everything else, including liquid egg whites and fish. However, the meat- and nonmeat regulators have expressed interest in inspecting cultured food products, often promoted as "clean" or "fake meat."

While rancher groups have petitioned the USDA to handle regulation, fearing labeling problems that could eat into meatpacker profits; the FDA has beaten the other agency to the punch.

The FDA has scheduled a public meeting for July 12 so agency officials can make their case for regulating food products made from animal cells, often referred to as meat. Registration for the meeting is free and made available via webcast through the agency's website. The agency is also accepting public comment through Sept. 25.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb and Deputy Commissioner Anna Abram say they should hold jurisdiction because of the agency's experience in handling bioengineered foods and the risks that come with them.

"This is a dynamic space that's gaining interest among companies for various reasons, including appealing to consumers motivated by animal welfare concerns and commercial incentives, including environmental impact, for replacing traditional animal-derived materials for nonanimal components," they said in a joint statement. "At the same time, the technological considerations for these products are complex and evolving."

According to the FDA, officials expect most or all starter cells for cultured "meat" products to come from living animals for the foreseeable future. Although there are methods where animals cells can be produced from starter cells using bioreactors. Gottlieb and Abram say firms fine-tuning these methods for mass production expect a result similar to therapeutic organ or tissue replacement.

"There's a lot that's up in the air with these products, and I don't know whether it's good or bad," said Jayson Lusk, distinguished professor of the Department of Agricultural Economics at Perdue University.

Under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, the FDA regulates food, which includes "articles used for food" and "articles used for components of any such article." Which translates to the agency's handling of microbial, algal and fungal cells used as food ingredients, foods derived from genetically engineered plants, and packaged seafood products. The agency also oversees plant-based products that emulate burgers and bratwursts.

In Lusk's eyes, the USDA's food inspection agency was established to inspect animal slaughterhouses and prevent diseases from spreading, "which would not be relevant for these products."

Shortly after Gottlieb and Abram announced their agency's intentions, Politico reported the USDA called the FDA's claims "overly broad." In the article, the USDA issued a statement: "According to federal law, meat and poultry inspections are the sole purview of USDA, so we expect any product marketed as 'meat' to be USDA's responsibility."

That is, if both agencies keep their set jurisdictions. As with the Obama administration in 2015, the current administration announced plans to consolidate federal food safety duties under one roof: the USDA. In a report issued last month, the White House proposed food safety reform designed to make federal food safety responsibilities more efficient and less confusing.

"While a cheese pizza has to meet [FDA] standards, a pepperoni pizza falls under the [USDA]," the White House report said. "Last time you made an omelet, the FDA regulated any eggs you cracked yourself, but the FSIS was responsible if you poured from a carton of liquid eggs. And chickens? The FDA regulates their feed while the FSIS inspects them at slaughter."

As the federal food inspection agencies play tug of war over ersatz meats, corporate interests are trying to keep up with the target consumer. As more people question the quality of their food -- wondering about the sources of products -- food and retail companies have formed venture capital groups to invest in growing startup companies that are targeting consumer habits and purchasing tendencies.

The investment arms of Tyson Foods and Cargill Inc. have invested in cultured food company Memphis Meats and other food alternative startups, such as plant-based food producer Beyond Meat.

Shoppers can find Beyond Meat's products in Kroger and TGI Friday's stores nationwide, but not foods derived from animal cells. Those have yet to hit the commercial market but should be on shelves relatively soon, according to competing startups. Memphis Meats announced a 2021 goal for its lab-grown poultry products. Food company Just for All estimated its first round of cultured meat products should be in stores by the end of this year.

Spokesmen for Cargill and Tyson Foods did not say whether the companies preferred USDA or FDA oversight for cultured food products. Memphis Meats did not respond to a request for comment for this article. A spokesman for Tyson Foods said in an email it would "leave the responsibility of regulating these products to the government."

A Cargill spokesman referred to the North American Meat Institute for comment. The D.C. trade association represents the bulk of U.S. meat and poultry companies.

Janet Riley, senior vice president of public affairs for the North American Meat Institute, said its interests align with USDA oversight. According to the association, there are many safety and nutritional unknowns regarding lab-grown products, but a few things are clear: Animals are necessary for cultured products and foods labeled as "meat" fall under USDA's jurisdiction

SundayMonday Business on 07/01/2018

Print Headline: 'Fake meat' held up by regulatory tug-of-war


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  • mrcharles
    July 1, 2018 at 12:34 p.m.

    Fake people making fake meat

  • smmlv3
    July 2, 2018 at 9:11 a.m.

    Fake meat? At first I thought this article would be about using soy protein as a meat substitute as we did in the 70's. The only people who think it's a good idea to use animal cells to generate "fake meat" are those who will make millions from the artificial stuff. Beef, pork, poultry, fish and soybeans are great arkansas renewable resources. Let's stick with real food, please!