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Farm bill addresses lab-meat oversight

by Nathan Owens | May 16, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

The proposed federal farm bill now before the House Appropriations Committee directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ride herd over food products created from animal cells.

Tucked inside the bill, designed to fund a host of federal food and agricultural programs, is a paragraph that directs the USDA to take jurisdiction over lab-grown “meat” products.

While plant-based foods that look like meat are already on store shelves, sooner or later more experimental alternatives will be stocked by national retailers. Startup companies around the globe that can create food or grow protein products from animal cells are getting big bucks from producers like Tyson Foods. This month Tyson’s venture arm led a $2.2 million funding round for a Jerusalem-based biotech company that promises to drop production costs of lab-grown meat to as low as $2.27 per pound by 2020. Alternative meat producer Beyond Meat, also backed by Tyson, announced plans to expand distribution globally this summer.

As food companies such as Tyson, Campbell’s, Kellogg’s, Chobani and General Mills continue to invest in product development, farmers continue to think about their herds. Several farm groups have affirmed their allegiance to traditional forms of cattle raising in light of the alternative meat movement. While some are staunchly against so-called fake meats, others remain open to the idea of beef or chicken products grown from animal cells — as long as it’s not called meat.

“The livestock groups view this as a competitive threat,” said Jayson Lusk, a distinguished professor and head of the agricultural economics department at Purdue University. Citing the shelf takeover of substitute milk products, Lusk said these groups are worried that mislabeled meat products will eat into their market share.

“The standards of identity protect their interests,” he said.

Fake meat became one of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s top policy priorities this year, with the goal of protecting people from misleading labels. For this to take root, the advocacy group backed the USDA last month as the right agency to handle alternative meat policies and regulations — not the Food and Drug Administration.

Citing a history of labeling-law failures and mishaps, the cattlemen’s association encouraged the USDA to take the lead, rather than spend time and resources to develop “a standard of identity the FDA will blatantly ignore,” according to an April news release.

“I can imagine from a regulatory standpoint that cultured meat is more similar to beef and pork, and that has to be regulated by the USDA,” Lusk said.

Traditionally the USDA handles meat and poultry products, while the FDA handles seafood and non-meat products. Meat substitutes that do not use animals, like Beyond Meat, are regulated under the FDA. The oversight agency for products derived from animal cells is undetermined.

Regulation from the USDA deals with slaughter-plant safety and disease control, so “it’s not all that clear to me that meat safety carries over to this lab-grown stuff,” Lusk said.

Travis Justice, chief economist of the Arkansas Farm Bureau, said it looks like Congress jumped in the middle of the controversy. He said lawmakers want to see what passes and “try to get the dust cleared a little.”

It could also add fuel to the fire.

Justice referenced labeling issues from years past. One involved whether milk substitutes from non-dairy sources should be labeled as milk. The other involved a product known as turkey ham, which called into question the definition of ham and whether it should be labeled as such on store shelves.

“This controversy is just going to get hotter,” Justice said, referencing alternative meat policy. “There’s a lot of big-money players in this game … so it’s going to keep some controversy, until we have some more defined rules.”

Startup companies around the globe that can create food or grow protein products from animal cells are getting big bucks from producers like Tyson Foods.


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