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News & Media: Staff Columns

What is meat?

Monday, September 10, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Aaron Stauffacher, assoc. dir. of govt. affairs
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The labeling debate over milk and dairy foods has been going on for years, with plant-based products using the terms to market their imitation products. A similar debate has now hit the meat side of agriculture.

“Clean” meat, also known as “lab-grown” or “cell-cultured” meat, originates from animal cells but is grown in a controlled environment. Meat products, in the traditional sense, are sourced or derived from livestock or poultry. 

So, is “clean meat” really meat, and should it be labeled as such?

No, says the beef, pork and poultry communities, which are moving ahead to protect the sanctity of their products. They have plenty of reason to be concerned. Just in the last decade, the cost to mass produce an alternative protein food has dropped from several hundred thousand dollars to a price point comparable for a traditionally sourced meat food. Large meat companies like Tyson Foods and Cargill are continuing to invest in these alternatives. And there’s no telling how it could ultimately alter customer purchases.

The debate over what the lab-grown product should be called starts with what government agency has primary jurisdiction to regulate it. Both the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Federal Drug Administration (FDA) have sought jurisdiction. Discussion over proper labeling terms will come afterward.

Most barnyard groups support USDA regulation because the agency has historically regulated the safety of all meat and poultry products. Through the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service, lab-grown meat would be held to the same comprehensive inspection system that meat producers and processors have been subject to for years. However, if it were to be regulated as “meat,” the food companies would be allowed to use the word on the label as well as associated terms like burger and steak. Citing dairy’s milk labeling debacle with the FDA, livestock groups are willing to take that risk because of the confidence they have in USDA’s ability to make sure customers are provided with the best information about how the meat or meat alternative they are buying is produced.

At the same time, producers of lab-grown meat are pushing for FDA jurisdiction for fear that USDA would be too sympathetic to livestock labeling demands. FDA has already laid out its case for authority by holding a public meeting and opening a federal docket for comments on potential regulations.

Before the issue is resolved in D.C., the state of Missouri went ahead and passed a law earlier this year to restrict companies from misrepresenting food products as meat when the product is not derived from livestock or poultry. The law also curbs plant-based protein alternatives’ use of similar terms. However, a group led by the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed suit to block the law on constitutional grounds. It is unlikely other states will follow Missouri’s lead until the lawsuit plays out or the federal government acts prior to the court resolution.

As contributors to the beef supply, dairy farmers have a definite stake in the debate. Edge is discussing the issue with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the United States Cattlemen’s Association and the National Pork Producers Council. All animal agriculture organizations must work together where we can agree.

 

Considering the complexity of this issue, it is sure to be a long road ahead. Edge will be in it for the long haul.


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