Meat producers and lab-grown protein companies finally set their beef aside

In a letter to President Trump, once-oppositional groups find common ground on what to call lab-grown meat and who should regulate it.

Update, Friday, 3:20 pm: This story has been updated to include an additional statement from the North American Meat Institute.

What’s in a name?

On Thursday, the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), a Washington, D.C.-based association that represents the country’s biggest meat producers and food companies, and Memphis Meats, a San Francisco startup that’s racing to get lab-grown meat in stores, teamed up to appeal directly to President Trump to handle a long-simmering dispute.

At issue is which government agency should regulate this newer, fancier, lab-ier meat—the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which regulates meat, poultry, and most “egg products,” like pourable egg whites, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which basically regulates everything else. (Though, as our own Patrick Clinton explains, there are some exceptions to that rule.)

Likely, the real concern is political, not scientific.
As we’ve reported, groups on opposite sides of the deli aisle want different things. On one end is the so-called “barnyard” group that represents ranchers, meatpackers, and other meat companies who want USDA to be the agency that handles cell-cultured meat. That would include supervising on-site safety inspections, as well as approving the product labels.

However, cell-cultured meat companies, namely Memphis Meats, have argued that FDA should be responsible for the safety of the products, which include “new and novel ingredients,” as Eric Schulze, a Memphis Meats executive, and former FDA regulator, pointed out at a biotech conference in Boston in June. When meat is grown in a lab, it begins with a cell sample procedure known as a biopsy, and the product is created through culturing muscle fibers in petri dishes.

Likely, the real concern is political, not scientific. “The USDA has long been criticized for its dual role of regulating and promoting agricultural industries,” Chase Purdy at Quartz reported in April. “Some within the clean meat sphere have expressed a fear that they would not have the same degree of influence within the USDA as traditional groups, and so, under USDA regulation, they would be forced onto a lopsided playing field.”

On Thursday, however, groups from opposite sides of the fence co-signed a letter to the White House to settle the dispute. And that would make sense: both regulatory bodies are branches of the executive. Since thus far, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb haven’t been able to figure out who should regulate this alt-meat, maybe their boss can.

The letter is the first time the two group have publicly come together on both regulation and what to call the stuff.
“FDA should have oversight over pre-market safety evaluations for cell-based meat and poultry products,” the letter reads. “After pre-market safety has been established with FDA, USDA should regulate cell-based meat and poultry products, as it does with all other meat and poultry products, applying relevant findings from FDA’s safety evaluation to ensure products are safe, wholesome, and properly labeled.”

In other words, let each regulatory group do what they do best. That would include requiring USDA inspectors in lab-grown meat facilities every day, who are making sure that the companies are following hazard analysis plans, says Mark Dopp, who oversees regulatory affairs for NAMI. “That an inspector is gonna stand there and look at a bioreactor, that’s not gonna happen,” he says. Meaning they’re not going to be inspecting aspects of the scientific process. “The inspector is going to ensure that the product is safe, and make sure it’s sanitary.”

The letter is striking because it’s the first time the two groups—those of the meat-from-a-carcass sort and those of the make-it-in-a-lab sort—have publicly come together on both regulation and what to call the stuff. Lab chops? Frankenburgers? No: “Cell-based meat and poultry products.” That’s interesting, not just because of the suspect semantics—isn’t everything on earth cell-based?—but because it represents a shift from the last time the barnyard groups publicly appealed to the White House, with a letter in July.

That letter, which was co-signed by NAMI, along with the American Farm Bureau, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and other meat companies, was sharply critical of a meeting that had been held earlier that month, where FDA, appearing to take the lead on regulating lab-grown meat products, held a public panel packed with lab-meat evangelists. At the time, the barnyard groups were calling the product “cell-cultured protein.” No longer.

Lab chops? Frankenburgers? No: “Cell-based meat and poultry products.”
A spokeswoman for the United States Cattlemen’s Association (USCA), which represents cattle ranchers, and was not included in either letter sent by NAMI, says the group supports a regulatory compromise, rather than a protracted battle, but still takes issue with the name. In February, the group petitioned USDA for stricter labeling of lab-based meat products, saying the department “should limit the definition of beef to product from cattle born, raised, and harvested in the traditional manner.”

“We call it cell-based protein, or alternative protein. Protein’s a good word,” says Lia Biondo, the director of policy and outreach at USCA, when asked what her association calls the product. “Not beef or meat. Anything else.”

Sam Bloch is a contributing writer for The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has also written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Art in America and other publications, and is currently working on his first book, a work of narrative nonfiction about shade, for Random House.