Cultured chicken nuggets from JUST, Inc.

Last Friday, we got one step closer to figuring out the regulatory future of cell-based meat.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a statement stating that they would work together with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to oversee production of what they called “cell-cultured food products derived from livestock and poultry.” The statement comes almost a month after the two organizations led a joint meeting to focus on regulation and labeling of the new technology.

We knew from the get-go that the two organizations would work together on the regulation of this new technology, so that part isn’t exactly news. But the statement also outlines exactly which roles each organization will take on. From the USDA (bolding our own):

Agencies are today announcing agreement on a joint regulatory framework wherein FDA oversees cell collection, cell banks, and cell growth and differentiation. A transition from FDA to USDA oversight will occur during the cell harvest stage. USDA will then oversee the production and labeling of food products derived from the cells of livestock and poultry. 

So the FDA will oversee everything from gathering the tissue to cultivating it (growing it into enough muscle fibers to eat). Once the meat is complete, the USDA will take over and oversee the process of labeling. This division “leverage[s] both the FDA’s experience regulating cell-culture technology and living biosystems and the USDA’s expertise in regulating livestock and poultry products for human consumption.”

True enough, the USDA typically oversees meat at the point of slaughter. Since there’s no slaughter when meat is cultured outside the animal, it makes sense that the closest equivalent would be the point of “harvest” in which the cells are done reproducing and ready to be processed and eaten.

Dr. Mark Post with the world’s first burger made of cells grown in a lab.

Sentiment seems to be positive about the new division of power. Initially, cell-based meat companies advocated for the FDA to be the primary regulatory body involved, but they seem to be okay with this arrangement. Jessica Almy, the Director of Policy of the Good Food Institute, a non-profit which supports meat and dairy alternatives, issued a statement writing that “This announcement is an exciting indication that FDA and USDA are clearing the way for a transparent and predictable regulatory path forward.”

Big Beef is also pleased(ish) with the division. In a statement emailed to Food Dive, The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association wrote: “This announcement that USDA would have primary jurisdiction over the most important facets of lab-produced fake meat is a step in the right direction.”

In the end, it seems that the USDA will have the trickier job of the two. Labeling is one of the most contentious issues surrounding cell-based meat: In the last few years alone, it has been called in-vitro, lab-grown, cultured, clean, and, most recently, cell-based meat. Traditional meat companies are pushing back on calling it meat at all (see “fake meat” reference above). The fact that USDA has the power in the labeling department could mean an uphill battle for cell-based companies who want to use the term “meat”.

But the USDA’s timeline to deciding on a name for the stuff is ticking down. JUST, Inc. is still planning to bring a cell-based poultry product to market by the end of 2018, provided it gains regulatory approval. With just over a month remaining, it seems ambitious that they will indeed be able to get the regulatory thumbs-up to meet their goal.

Progress may be slow, but all involved — traditional and cell-based meat companies — seem pleased that the government is taking steps to address this new technology. However, there’s still a lot to work out. It remains to be seen what information the two organizations will share, how and to what extent they’ll collaborate, and, of course, what we’re going to call the stuff.

The public comment period of last month’s meeting has been extended will be open until December 26th. Speak now, or forever hold your peace (of steak).

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