Cell-based meats have yet to hit stores and restaurants, but a growing number of companies are getting closer to launching affordable meats made in the lab from cultured animal cells.
The promise of an alternative to current practices of raising animals for food has attracted investors, raised questions about whether consumers will accept lab-grown meat and even launched an ongoing debate over whether the products should be called “meat” at all.
Meanwhile, two federal agencies have stopped short of calling it meat, but they have crafted a plan to regulate the industry in advance of the first products hitting the market.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration outlined a plan Friday to jointly oversee the industry, which they’re calling “cell-cultured food products.” Companies and trade groups see the plan as a key step toward getting meat made from animal cells in the lab into the market and gaining public acceptance of the alternative to factory farming.
Under the proposed system, the FDA would oversee the process from the time cells are collected from animals including cows, pigs and chickens, through the culturing process, and the USDA would take over when the cells are harvested and turned into meat products for sale to consumers.
The proposed plan resulted from two days of talks between the agencies and industry players, which came after plenty of encouragement from companies that have products in the works and need a regulatory framework in place before they can launch.
JUST, Inc., the maker of JUST Mayo and JUST Egg has been developing a cell-based chicken product it expects to launch in a foodservice channel before the end of the year, provided it meets with regulatory approval, Andrew Noyes, JUST’s head of communications, said Monday.
The company hasn’t yet said where the product will debut, but it’s expected to be in one or more high-end restaurants, not retail stores, he said. It’s also not clear whether the products will launch first in the U.S. or other countries that have also been working on establishing regulatory frameworks to oversee the new products.
“A number of countries are interested and are actively exploring their own regulatory frameworks for cultured meat,” he said. “That said, the U.S. has an opportunity to lead the world in bringing these innovative new products to consumers and we’re excited to work with the USDA and FDA on that process.”
Other companies working on cell-based meat and seafood include Mosa Meat, Memphis Meats and Finless Foods.
The Good Food Institute, a trade group that’s on a mission to support scientific advancements in both plant-based and cell-based meat production, lauded Friday’s decision as an important step in getting cell-based products to market with as little confusion and complication as possible. The group also agreed with the agencies that the plan doesn’t require action by Congress.
“We look forward to working with the agencies on their guidance to the cell-based meat industry under the current regulatory framework,” GFI Policy Director Jessica Almy said in a statement. “We are confident that together the USDA and FDA will ensure that cell-based meat and poultry are safe for consumers and appropriately labeled.”
In a report issued last year, the National Academy of Sciences named cell-based meats as a growth area in the biotechnology arena and recommended a regulatory framework to oversee the industry, much like the joint FDA/USDA plan.
And the announcement of the plan may be timely in more ways than one as Thanksgiving approaches. In addition to reducing suffering to animals, cell-based meat also promises to be safer for consumers.
Before it claimed the current label of “cell-based meat,” the industry tried on others including “clean meat.” The name doesn’t seem to be sticking, but the concept of cell-based meat that makes the food supply safer could prove to be a selling point.
By creating meat in the lab, scientists can control for pathogens like salmonella, which the USDA said this week it has been working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to track an outbreak that thus far has hit 164 people in 35 states.
“Patients have reported eating different types and brands of turkey products purchased from many different stores, handling raw turkey pet food and/or raw turkey, or working with live turkeys or living with someone who handled live turkeys,” the agency said in a news release.