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story.lead_photo.caption A worker demonstrates the equipment used to test a Savage River Inc. Beyond Meat burger patty at the company’s Manhattan Beach Project Innovation Center in Los Angeles earlier this month.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association and related groups submitted a letter to President Donald Trump last week, urging him to ensure the U.S. Department of Agriculture is the primary food inspection agency over cell-cultured protein products, more commonly known as "lab-grown" or "fake meat."

"The American people elected President Trump because they trusted him to promote a level playing field for American products around the world," Kevin Kester, president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said in a statement. "Now, the President has the chance to demonstrate his support for free and fair markets right here at home."

Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration held a public meeting to discuss the feasibility of inspecting such products. The federal agency, known for regulating tobacco, medicines and supplements, and food items -- which do not involve beef, poultry or pork -- made the case that cell-cultured food items, while derived from animals, do lean more into its jurisdiction than the USDA's.

Organizations that represent meat and poultry industries, however, do not see eye to eye with the non-meat regulator. In Thursday's letter, they requested the president to "take action to preserve a fair and competitive marketplace for all meat and poultry products, regardless of the method in which these products are produced."

They argue that under the USDA's watch, all meat and poultry products will be held to the same safety and labeling standards, reducing the likelihood of consumer confusion and ensuring a level playing field in the marketplace. In the letter, the groups identified one cell-cultured protein representative at the FDA's public meeting who said, "Our beef is beef and our chicken is chicken," backing up their claims that all products purported to be meat or poultry should undergo the same inspection system, regardless of whether they are traditionally raised or factory-grown.

Organizations signing the letter include the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Sheep Industry Association, National Chicken Council, National Pork Producers Council, National Turkey Federation, and North American Meat Institute. They call the FDA's assertiveness over cell-cultured products a "regulatory power grab."

Travis Justice, chief economist of the Arkansas Farm Bureau, said its parent organization made this stance for competitive reasons.

"If you are going to compete directly with meat, you need to be subjected to the same standards as meat," Justice said.

The Good Food Institute, a nonprofit focused on items promoted as "clean meat" and "plant-based alternatives" to animal products see it differently. In response to the letter submitted Thursday, the group issued a statement in support of a clear regulatory path for cell-cultured products overseen by the FDA.

"It is clear that FDA will have authority over most or all varieties of clean meat fish. Given that the methods of production will be the same, splitting oversight of the same process between two agencies would be duplicative and costly," said Jessica Almy, Good Food's director of policy. "So it makes sense that FDA would regulate clean beef, chicken, and pork as well."

The National Academy of Sciences published a study last year entitled "Preparing for Future Products of Biotechnology," in which dozens of scientists recommended regulatory agencies to develop a "single point of entry" for cell-cultured products to expedite the approval process.

These products have yet to hit store shelves, but food conglomerates have already invested in startups focused on this growing market sector. Under the leadership of Tom Hayes, Tyson Foods has made strides to shift its image away from a chicken giant and more to a protein company, with recent investments in plant-based producer Beyond Meat and cell-cultured manufacturer Memphis Meats. Cargill Inc. has also made similar investments.

While jurisdiction is yet to be determined, government officials have expressed interest in one food safety agency over the other, federal documents show. In a 121-page reformation plan published in June, the current administration recommended complete food safety consolidation under one roof: the USDA's. A piece of legislation is also pending with the House Appropriations Committee that grants USDA oversight of cell-cultured meat products. Meanwhile, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., requested in March for the U.S. Government Accountability Office to examine the regulatory frameworks of both the USDA and FDA and craft a report to help determine which agency is best equipped for these emerging products so lawmakers know how taxpayer funds should be allocated.

Based on the way each group regulates food products, Almy said it made less sense to side with the USDA.

"The FDA's going to grow it and create cuts of meat out of that," she said. "That's different from slaughterhouse methods that the USDA typically oversees."

The same day the agricultural groups submitted their letter, the FDA said it is reviewing its standards of identity for plant-based products marketed as milk, a decades-long issue touted by critics. In Thursday's statement, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said "We intend to look at whether parents may erroneously assume that plant-based beverages' nutritional contents are similar to those of cow's milk, despite the fact that some of these products contain only a fraction of the protein or other nutrients found in cow's milk."

The agency referenced reports of toddlers and young children being diagnosed with diseases caused by vitamin D and protein deficiencies as case examples that stem from labels perceived as misleading. Toward the bottom of the news release, the agency said it plans to take actions to enforce labeling policy that diffuses consumer misunderstanding "especially when nutrition and public health may be at risk."

"While dairy has received a lot of attention, there are many other standards of identity that need to be revisited and potentially modernized," Gottlieb said Thursday.

Business on 07/31/2018

Print Headline: USDA eye on 'fake meat' urged

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