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The lab-grown meat industry just got the regulatory oversight it’s been begging for

Taking cell-based meat products to market will require a regulatory framework. The FDA and USDA just announced one.

A cross-section of a hamburger.
This non-meat “burger” looks like the real thing.
Impossible Foods
Kelsey Piper is a senior writer at Future Perfect, Vox’s effective altruism-inspired section on the world’s biggest challenges. She explores wide-ranging topics like climate change, artificial intelligence, vaccine development, and factory farms, and also writes the Future Perfect newsletter.

It’s not every day you see companies rejoicing at an announcement that the government is figuring out how to regulate their product.

But that’s exactly what happened Thursday, March 7, when the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that they’d established a framework for regulating cell-based meat and poultry. The companies working on those products were thrilled.

Why? Well, cell-based meat companies have been arguing for years that their product is meat and should be regulated like meat from slaughterhouses. And they’ve pointed out that, for America’s “clean meat” industry to remain competitive with the clean meat industries in Israel, China, Singapore, the Netherlands, Japan, and other countries, companies need assurance that their product will be responsibly regulated by the USDA and the FDA.

Proponents believe cell-based meat has the potential to solve a bunch of the world’s biggest problems in one shot. They hope it can end animal cruelty on factory farms, combat climate change, reduce the use of antibiotics to keep animals alive in cramped conditions, and make it possible to feed a growing, increasingly wealthy global population.

But to do any of those things, consumer confidence is absolutely critical. If people don’t believe that cell-based meat products are safe, regulated, and healthy, then they’ll stick with slaughtered meat. “Consumers must have confidence that cultured meat products are safe for consumption and appropriately labeled,” said JUST, a meat-alternatives company, in a press release applauding the decision.

That’s how the cell-based meat industry ended up actively working to convince the US government to step in and exercise its regulatory authority — and that’s why they were encouraged by the government’s announcement. By stepping in to regulate cell-based meat, the government is treating it as food subject to the same oversight as the rest of our food. If cell-based meat can do half of what proponents hope, that’s a really big deal.

The new regulatory framework for cell-based meat

The government’s announcement wasn’t very big in itself.

It’s a “formal agreement” between the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration about how to treat cell-based meat products. Basically, regulation of meat involves both agencies — the USDA overlooking food processing, labeling, and distribution, and the FDA conducting inspections and safety checks — and the regulation of cell-based meat will, too. This agreement outlines which problems are the jurisdiction of which agency, so they can develop further guidelines without stepping on each others’ toes.

“It provides a transparent path to market for cell-based meat products,” Elan Abrell, a senior regulatory specialist at the Good Food Institute, told me. The Good Food Institute is working on cell-based and plant-based meat alternatives, and has been active in the fight for rules like these.

The risk that the uncertainty would slow investment in cell-based meat research was clearly on the mind of USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, who has spoken at length in the last year about how to regulate cell-based meat. “We don’t want this new technology to feel like they’ve got to go offshore or outside the United States to get a fair regulatory protocol,” he said at a North American Meat Institute event last year.

The regulatory framework here is still preliminary, and it leaves some important questions unanswered — among them, labelling. Cell-based meat advocates argue that they should be allowed to label their products as meat, Abrell told me. In many states, legislation has been introduced — and in some cases has passed — prohibiting them from doing that.

The USDA’s labelling authority overrides that of the states — states are not allowed to impose labelling requirements incompatible with the standards that the USDA puts forward. That’s so we don’t end up with 50 different standards for the labelling of products, and higher food costs as companies try to comply with different requirements everywhere. So if the USDA says that cell-based meat products can be labelled as “cell-based meat,” “slaughter-free meat,” “clean meat,” or any of the other terms that have been proposed, that should settle the question.

In the real world, of course, it’ll be more complicated than that. Once a law is in place, someone has to have the grounds to sue, and then file a lawsuit, in order to change it. So if the USDA says it’s okay to label cell-based products as meat, there’ll likely be many lengthy fights in court before those labels are legal everywhere.

Abrell told me that the Good Food Institute was hoping the USDA’s leadership would stop such laws from being proposed and approved in the first place — that, now that the federal government is stepping up and characterizing their responsibilities on this issue, the states will stop trying to legislate meat-labelling law themselves.

Can cell-based meat live up to the hype?

In the regulatory agreement released Thursday, the cell-based meat industry cleared one major hurdle: US regulators are interested in ensuring that these technologies have a future here.

“We’ve got new technology with stem cell protein growth [referring to cell-cultured meat technology],” Purdue said in an interview last year. “Shouldn’t we in the United States be about how we can grow and feed people more efficiently and more effectively? … These techniques need to be embraced, not kept out.”

So cell-based meat will have its shot at living up to its promise. But will it?

There are still a number of hurdles to be overcome before we have cell-based meat in stores. First, there’s a challenge called “scaffolding” — figuring out how to shape cultured cells into tissue. Right now, cell-based meat techniques can make a decent replacement for, say, ground beef. But to replace a steak, you need to grow the cells into the tissues that they grow into in living animals. Researchers are still figuring out how to do that.

Once you have a product, there’s the question of scaling it. The hope for cell-based meat is that it can eventually meet all of the world’s demand for meat, which is steadily increasing as the world gets wealthier. To do that, it’s not enough to be able to make one steak — you need to be able to make steaks at the same incredible scale that factory farms do.

“There are lots of technical hurdles here to overcome,” Paul Mozdziak, a muscle biologist who studies lab-grown poultry at North Carolina State University, told Nature in February.

Then there’s the question of how much cell-based meat will help with climate change. Cell-based meat cultivation won’t produce methane, like our current agriculture does. But it’ll still be energy-intensive and thus relies on the availability of lots of renewable energy to avoid being carbon-intensive too. One study covered by my colleague Sigal Samuel argues that in the worst-case scenario it could be just as bad for the environment as conventional farming, though the study reached that conclusion with some highly questionable assumptions, like that our energy production methods won’t improve at all in the next 1,000 years.

With a regulatory framework now in place, proponents argue that these promises are likelier than ever to be achieved. Investors can invest more confidently, knowing that the US is working to ensure these products can be safely brought to market. With more money and more research, the remaining technical challenges might prove tractable.

But it’s also quite likely that cell-based meat will be slower to market than proponents hope and — at least initially — will not address all the problems it’s meant to. And it’s worryingly possible that, even if all goes well, consumers won’t be interested. All regulation can do is ensure cell-based meat products are safe, accurately labelled, and legal to bring to market.

For the companies working on those products, that’s enough for some rejoicing for the moment.

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