Photo: Big Think

Earlier this week, scientists, entrepreneurs, and concerned members of the public got together to discuss the future of cell-based (also called “cultured” and “lab-grown”) meat during a joint meeting put on by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). According to the FDA news release, the meeting was intended to “focus on the potential hazards, oversight considerations, and labeling of cell cultured food products derived from livestock and poultry.”

The FDA held the first meeting on cultured meat back in July, and while it succeeded in starting the conversation around regulation of meat grown outside an animal, not much was concluded. From the people I spoke to who attended the meeting, everyone agreed that something had to be done to regulate this new edible technology, but no one could agree exactly what — or even what to call it.

Watching recordings from the meeting and scanning through Twitter, one topic seemed to be the most divisive, contentious, and downright critical: labeling. It’s where I think that the real stakes (steaks?) are: nomenclature will be a determining factor in consumer perception of this new technology. Here are a few interesting points that came up during the meeting:

Labeling is actually a health concern

“We cell-based food producers do need to use the terms ‘fish’ and ‘meat’,” said Michael Selden, the CEO of cultured seafood company Finless Foods. “If one is allergic to animal-based seafood, that person has a high probability that they’ll be allergic to the seafood made with our technology.”

His company is working to create fish meat that is identical, on a cellular level, to traditional fish. If they succeed, labeling cultured salmon something like “cell-based artificial salmon product,” consumers with a life-threatening allergy to salmon might not realize that it posed just as big a threat.

Given, not all that many consumers are allergic to meat and seafood. But it’s still an important point: cultured meat is meat on a molecular level.

Photo: Flickr, by Adactio

Should labeling address how the product is made?

“It’s clear that consumers care about the way that their food is produced,” said Liz Holt of the Animal Legal Defense Fund. If cultured meat is required to disclose all the substances that went into it, should traditional meat be held to the same standards?

As of now, meat companies can choose whether or not to display information about the animal’s life and diet, such as “grass-fed” or “free-range.” They don’t have to disclose what the animal ate, or where it was raised.

Some consumers might not want to know exactly what type of life the cow in their bargain ground beef had before making its way onto their plate. Specht’s point shows that more information is generally good — but sometimes the consumer doesn’t want or need it.

Cell-based meat wants its own labels

Both sides of the table agreed on one thing: cultured meat should be labeled differently than traditional meat. Cultured meat startups want to indicate to the consumer that their product is meat, but is also different than meat from a slaughtered animal.

Peter Licari, CTO of JUST, said that there should be a regulatory nomenclature that “sufficiently differentiates cell-cultured products from traditional meat products but appropriately acknowledges these products as meat.”

What exactly that elusive final term will be — one that effectively communicates both that the product is meat, but not meat from a slaughtered animal — isn’t clear. But companies and regulatory bodies need to figure it out pretty quickly. JUST is still planning to be the first company to bring cultured meat to market by the end of this year, and Finless Foods will launch its cell-based tuna in 2019. By 2021 Mosa Meats and Memphis Meats will join them.

Isha Datar of New Harvest said it best, speaking at the meeting: “This is not just a product, but a new paradigm for food production.” Now the FDA and USDA need to figure out what to call it.

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