Burger Battle: Beef industry fights for appropriate nomenclature and regulatory oversight of petri-dish proteins.
A rose called by any other name may smell just as sweet, but would beef derived from a petri-dish instead produced in a pasture still be considered “beef?”
That’s the argument the United States Cattlemen’s Association (USCA) is making when it comes to lab-produced protein products. Lia Bondo, USCA director of policy and outreach, has been at the forefront of these discussions, arguing that imitation vanilla and imitation crab are labeled with a distinction from real crab or vanilla, and this petri-dish protein should be no different.
As a result, USCA petitioned the USDA to specifically define meat as “the tissue or flesh of animals that have been harvested in the traditional manner.”
Currently, the definition of meat, per the Federal Meat Inspection Act, reads, “The part of the muscle of any cattle, sheep, swine, or goats which is skeletal or which is found in the tongue, diaphragm, heart, or esophagus, with or without the accompanying and overlying fat, and the portions of bone (in bone-in product such as T-bone or porterhouse steak), skin, sinew, nerve, and blood vessels which normally accompany the muscle tissue and that are not separated from it in the process of dressing.”
“We’re certainly concerned with the transparency offered by these companies producing alternative proteins – for many, the concept of lab-grown muscle tissue is difficult to explain and nearly impossible to envision,” said Bondo. “We need a better understanding of what this product is and the process required to harvest and mass commercialize it.”
So what’s in a name? Perhaps everything.
As written, this would allow lab-grown proteins to be marketed and sold as beef, without the distinction that it was cultured in a petri dish instead of produced in a pasture and feedlot. And that could be problematic for traditional beef producers.
“These products are unlike the Boca veggie burgers that appealed to the vegetarian and vegan consumer,” said Danielle Beck, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) director of government affairs, who said products like the Impossible Burger, a plant-based patty made with beets and designed to ooze red juices to imitate a beef burger, are now being marketed to traditional meat consumers. “These products are already on the market and will be joined by companies who are selling cell cultured proteins that are materially similar to beef. They all seem to have an activist mentality; they sell meat without the guilt, and they appeal to consumers’ emotions about animal welfare and the environment.”
Groups like the Good Food Institute are very transparent, Beck says, in advocating for calling cultured proteins, “clean meat,” a term, they believe will help consumers accept and ultimately buy the products. However, Beck says the term “clean” is unacceptable. She explained, “By calling these products ‘clean,’ it is inherently disparaging to traditional meat products.”
Perhaps a cautionary tale would be the flailing dairy industry, which is currently experiencing a record-number of farmers fold and exit the business. The $600 billion dairy industry has experienced a 3.5% drop in milk sales in the last five years. At the same time, dairy alternatives grew just 4% with alternative milk products representing an $18 billion industry at just 3% of total “milk” sales.
Is this just a reflection of consumer trends shifting away from traditional dairy products? Or have these dairy-free alternatives done a better job of marketing their products? Perhaps the dairy industry was simply put at a disadvantage when the FDA allowed juice derived from soy, almonds and cashews to be labeled as “milk.”
“Under the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act, there are currently several different mechanisms to take enforcement action against foods that are misleading to consumers with provisions for imitation products,” said Beck. “Per the law, soy milk should actually be labeled as ‘imitation SOY milk,” with soy being printed in larger type, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has turned a blind eye to the law.”
In recent months, the FDA has recognized the problem and made it clear of its intentions to crack down on the way non-dairy alternatives label their products; however, it may be too little too late for the dairy industry. After all, almond milk is the number-one preferred creamer ordered at Starbucks, and chances are, those loyal customers won’t be calling the nut-derived product by any other name anytime soon.
In July 2018, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said, “If you look at our standard of identity—there is a reference somewhere in the standard of identity to a lactating animal. And, you know, an almond doesn’t lactate, I will confess.”
Earlier this year, Montana rancher and USCA member Maggie Nutter testified to the Food and Drug Administration in Washington, D.C., in an effort to protect beef’s stake in the meat case.
She said, “When you hear ‘Beef, It’s what’s for Dinner’ you are hearing the marketing that millions of checkoff dollars paid for. When other products use the term meat or beef, they are taking advantage of the years of hard work the beef checkoff has put in building beef’s good reputation. They are hijacking our trademark branding for the benefit of their own marketing. As ranchers, we don’t want anything that isn’t beef to be called beef or to use terms connected to meat.”
While NCBA has policy voted on by its membership about the protecting the nomenclature of beef and meat products, it’s how it will be regulated that is of great concern.
“The cell cultured protein companies are advocating for FDA jurisdiction because there are very few checks and balances, and the process to enter the market is a lot less stringent,” said Beck. “FDA is required to inspect high-risk companies every three years and low-risk every 10, so that potentially creates a situation where a perishable meat product only has a food safety authority stepping on the premises once per decade. This is incredibly problematic because even in a sterile lab environment, there are multiple points of vulnerability where these products could be subject to food-borne pathogens.”
She added, “That’s why we would like to see USDA overseeing these alternative proteins because they do continuous food safety inspections on food companies. The USDA has a mandatory pre-approval for labeling with requirements in five sets of scientific criteria including location, inspector nutrition and an accurate product name. The USDA provides consumers with very specific amounts of protection, so it’s more than a battle over the nomenclature; it’s really a battle on who has jurisdiction.”
In contrast to NCBA, USCA is not advocating for sole USDA jurisdiction of lab-grown muscle tissue. Instead, the organization would like to set up a joint regulatory framework working with both FDA and USDA, which is similar to how biotech crops are overseen. According to the USCA, if USDA has sole jurisdiction over this product, lab-grown proteins would be required to be called “meat.”
The USDA and FDA announced plans for a joint public meeting to be held on Oct. 23-24, 2018 to discuss the use of cell cultured protein products. The meeting will focus on potential hazards, oversight considerations and labeling of these products, and both USCA and NCBA will be there to participate in the conversation.
In a press release, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said, “This is an important opportunity to hear from the agricultural industry and consumers as we consider the regulatory framework for these new products,” said Secretary Perdue. “American farmers and ranchers feed the world, but as technology advances, we must consider how to inspect and regulate to ensure food safety, regardless of the production method.”
“The FDA knows just how vital it is to ensure the safety of our nation’s food supply and the critical role science-based, modern regulatory frameworks are to fostering innovation. Recent advances in animal cell cultured food products present many important and timely technical and regulatory considerations for the FDA and our partners at USDA,” said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb. “We look forward to the opportunity to hold a meeting with our USDA colleagues as part of an open public dialogue regarding these products.”
“At the end of the day, we’ve got to get the regulatory framework right,” said Beck. “That’s going to determine if there is an even playing field with these products. Beef producers are happy to compete for the center of the plate. We have been doing it for years, and we’re confident beef will always be what’s for dinner. However, if these products aren’t held to the same standards, that puts us at a significant disadvantage. We are focused on helping USDA win, and we’ll worry about the nomenclature down the road.”