About a decade ago, “disruption” was the big buzzword. Though it was (way) overused, there were some examples of startups that truly disrupted the status quo and changed entire industries. Think: Uber and taxis, or AirBnB and hotels. And now, from what it looks like, traditional meat producers in the U.S. are seeing the writing on the wall when it comes to lab-grown meat — and are taking steps to stave off their own disruption.
Agricultural professional groups including the American Sheep Industry Association, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Chicken Council, National Pork Producers Council and the National Turkey Federation fired off a letter to President Trump today, asking for parity when it comes to the regulation of cultured meat. From that letter:
“At a recent public meeting held by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which excluded USDA and at which FDA indicated it plans to assert itself as the primary regulator of cell-cultured products, a representative of a cell-cultured protein company stated, ‘Our beef is beef, our chicken is chicken.’ If that is so, then cell-cultured protein products that purport to be meat or poultry should be subject to the same comprehensive inspection system that governs other amenable meat and poultry products to ensure they are wholesome and safe for consumption, and to ensure they are labeled and marketed in a manner that provides a level playing field in the marketplace.”
This letter follows a petition from the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association in February of this year asking the USDA: To Exclude Product Not Derived Directly from Animals Raised and Slaughtered from the Definition of “Beef” and “Meat.” Basically, the argument is that the only thing you can call “beef” (and other specific meat types) is that which was born, raised and killed.
There’s a lot to unpack here. First, there is the issue of which regulatory body should oversee and set up rules around cultured meat. Traditional meat producers want it to be the USDA. But the USDA typically provides oversight of meat at the point of slaughter, and the point of lab-grown meat is to bypass animal slaughter altogether.
As Quartz points out, falling under USDA regulation would put cultured meat companies at a political disadvantage next to traditional meat producers, who have built up more clout with the agency.
For its part, The Good Food Institute (GFI), a non-profit that supports plant-based meat and dairy alternatives, responded publicly today advocating for FDA involvement, writing:
“The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has demonstrated the expertise necessary to provide adequate oversight of clean meat. Additionally, it is clear that FDA will have authority over most or all varieties of clean meat fish. Given that the methods of production will be the same, splitting oversight of the same process between two agencies would be duplicative and costly. So it makes sense that FDA would regulate clean beef, chicken, and pork as well.”
Ultimately, however, GFI said it would work with whichever agency was chosen.
In the press release announcing its letter to the president, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association used very Trump-ian language, calling lab-grown meat “fake meat,” and referring to the FDA’s recent moves as a “power grab.”
But all the sturm and drang from traditional meat producers feels a bit like an argument with a significant other over how they load the dishwasher. At some point, it’s not about how you place the bowls in the upper rack, it’s about something else — something deeper that’s been brewing inside.
Today’s letter to Trump comes at a time when the United States is sitting on 2.5 billion pounds of excess meat chilling in cold storage as a result of retaliatory tariffs from other U.S. meat importing countries, and at a time when the government is preparing to give $12 billion in aid to farmers impacted by the administration’s trade war.
Traditional meat producers have to deal with all of this today, and they have to worry about what can be grown in a petri dish tomorrow. That’s a tough spot to be in, but I can’t tell how many of these protestations are genuine and how many are just out of self-preserving fear. We should have a discussion about how we label the food we ingest! But if a startup can grow a steak in a lab without having to spend time, money and natural resources on raising an animal, we shouldn’t stymie that progress over picayune details.
Some traditional meat companies are investing these disruptive startups. Tyson Ventures, of the Tyson chicken company invested in Future Meat and Memphis Meats. Memphis Meats is also funded by agriculture giant, Cargill.
So is the smarter play to be a friend or foe to this meat disruption? Hopefully we won’t have to wait a decade to find out.