Cellular Agriculture on the Meat Aisle

One of the hot topics in DC these days is cellular agriculture. Now you may be asking yourself, “Why would I want meat that is grown in a laboratory?”  The answers might surprise you.

Cellular Agriculture on the Meat Aisle

If you aren’t familiar with the term, cellular agriculture refers to the production of meat, poultry and fish products from cell cultures grown outside the animal. The finished product is cellularly the same as if it was taken from food-producing animals.

Now you may be asking yourself, “Why would I want meat that is grown in a laboratory?”  The answers might surprise you. Cellular agriculture takes up much less energy and results in a smaller carbon footprint than conventional meat production.  It takes less freshwater, land use, energy inputs and greenhouse gas production, which means a more efficient use of natural resources.  Cellular agriculture can eliminate the risk of food-borne illnesses such as E. coli and salmonella, since fecal contaminants and pathogens are not part of the production process.

Additionally, the world is faced with feeding a growing population.  The United Nations predicts that by the year 2050, globally we are going to be faced with the challenge of feeding over 9 billion people. Urbanization is expected to continue at an accelerated pace, and about 70 percent of the world’s population will be urban (compared to 49 percent today). According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, to feed this larger, more urban population, annual meat production will need to more than double over the next three decades.  We need options to supplement the current supply of animal agriculture.

Interest in cellular agriculture has moved past debates on sustainability and science and interested the policy realm.  Earlier this year, a provision (Section 736) was inserted into the House-version of the Fiscal Year 2019 Agriculture Appropriations Bill (requiring regulation of cellular agriculture by the U.S. Department of Agriculture), the Ranking Member of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee has requested a GAO report on the regulation of cultured meats, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) held a public meeting about cultured meat technology on July 12th, “Foods Produced Using Animal Cell Culture Technology.”

Key topics addressed at FDA’s meeting were: regulatory oversight, safety considerations, and labeling.  During the “public comment” portion of the meeting, conventional agriculture interests inserted the question of jurisdiction, making clear that they envision the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as the appropriate agency to exercise regulatory oversight. To coincide with the FDA meeting on July 12th, Consumer Reports released the results of a national poll conducted in June that found that the majority of Americans think that cellular agriculture should be differentiated in some way from animal agriculture on the label.

Recent trends show that Congress is increasingly becoming involved in regulatory jurisdictional battles between the FDA and USDA and have done so, in part, through the appropriations process.  According to key staffers, Congress is hoping to complete action on appropriations bills during the lame duck session of Congress.  Congress has weighed into these debates over regulatory jurisdiction in the recent past as it relates to food; waiting for the regulatory process to unfold may be too late given Congress’ ability to dictate jurisdiction.

The cellular agriculture industry has said that it is an incorrect argument to say that consumers must choose between traditional and cellular meat, but rather this is an opportunity to supplement traditional meat production with innovation.  Just as consumers can find milks and yogurts made from soy and almonds on the dairy aisle, we may soon be seeing cellular agriculture products on the meat aisle.  And as regulators look at issues like labeling, consumers are going to be focused on price, taste and how the product is made.

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