Fake meat seems to be the news of the week. USDA and FDA held a joint meeting to discuss the issues surrounding cellular agriculture, which on the surface sounds creepy. I always thought agriculture had something to do with cultivating crops or rearing animals for human consumption.

But the issue is a serious one. The meeting was open to all stakeholders—even the animal rights activist groups were there. The meat industry is rightly trying to guide this very new segment of cellular-based meat production. I don’t believe any outfit is currently able to commercially produce meat from animal cells quite yet. But they claim they are very close to big league production.

Cattle groups want USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) to be the lead agency on this new form of meat production. FSIS currently inspects all meat processors and further processors’ production. The constant testing regimen they developed over the years has been the backbone of food safety in animal agriculture for decades.

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Cellular-based meat products involve a biological process that is not held harmless to food safety issues. They claim they can control pathogens, but it’s still a biological process and prone to degradation and rot. However, they would have you believe that since it’s produced in a laboratory it will be much safer, which is their justification for the reference to “clean meat.”

FDA regulates food product labeling, which is where the big debate is focused. The dairy industry let this get away from them years ago when soy milk, almond milk, and a host of other companies started labeling their products “milk.” The dairy industry has seen their sales decline about 3 percent while the milk substitute products have claimed about 3.5 percent of the milk market.

It appears the consensus was that the lab-grown products needed to differentiate themselves from real, wholesome conventional meat products. Clear packaging labels are a must. Meat producers were saying that the cell-based meat products need to be biochemically equivalent to conventional meat and that the cell-based industry should avoid claims of “clean meat” or “naturally produced” meat. Mark Dopp from the North American Meat Institute held up a couple sausage products to the crowd which did not indicate they were made with non-meat products on the front of the package. Essentially, accurate labels will empower consumers.

Then there were the animal welfare groups that discussed the fear and suffering in the poultry business. And the climate change crowd talking about saving he planet by getting rid of animal agriculture.

All that the conventional meat-producing groups are asking for is that cell-based meat go through the same inspection process as they do, and only FSIS has the systems in place to do the job effectively.

Where the FDA comes into the fold is to make sure that the added food ingredients utilized in cellular meat production are safe to consume. It’s like FDA would deal with the cellular construction of the meat while FSIS inspects the finished product. And FDA doesn’t have any systems in place to inspect product on an ongoing basis.

The way I see it, the cell-based industry will never be able to produce a T-bone or a tenderloin steak. The process appears to be limited to items like ground products for further processing. It might simply be a protein supplement to various food products.

I have no doubt that the companies perusing cell-based meat will earn some market share, but I don’t think it will put animal agriculture out of business. Many of the proponents of the technology were promoting the idea that industries change and making comparisons to things like the buggy whip business.

One question I have is: Who will own the cell lines needed to produce this meat? Animal agriculture is very protective of genetic material. Are cell-based genetics and bull semen the same thing? Will the breeder of the cells utilized in cell-based meat production have any financial interest in cells obtained from his cattle or chickens or hogs? Will there be any quality grading for cell-based meat?

One thing for sure is that the livestock industry is getting ahead of this oncoming new industry. There is no commercial production of anything yet. What we’re doing is setting the rules of engagement for an industry that appears inevitable, but nobody knows for sure. There are too many unanswered questions. — PETE CROW

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