Cultured Meat

When is meat not meat?: The challenges for cultured-meats labeling and regulation heats up

When should we call meat, meat? After all, we call the liquid inside a coconut “milk” but it’s not dairy and similarly plant based or lab-grown “meat” products use the term meat in their names.

As start-ups edge closer to perfecting lab-grown meat that’s acceptable to the mass market, the need for a defined regulatory regime for labeling, and associated nutritional values heightens.

It seems there is a clearer pathway for new entrants obtaining regulation in Europe than in the US. The European Food Safety Authority’s regulation on novel foods, which specifically includes cultured meat, established a process of around 18 months in which a company has to prove the product is safe. For US start-ups this journey does not look as clear with many bumps and hurdles in its way.

The first major hurdle was overcome last November when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) agreed to share regulation of lab-grown meat. In this agreement it was decided that the FDA will oversee cell collection and growth, while USDA will oversee production and product labelling. While this is a step in the right direction, there is still a lot of uncertainty and unanswered questions in cultured meats regulation.

Among these uncertainties is labelling. We witness all sides scrambling to frame this issue in their own words.

Pro-cultured meat advocacy group, the Good Food Institute, is embracing the name “clean meat” which fits well with the “clean energy” message they want to communicate with consumers. However following a discussion between several of these start-ups, they decided that the name comes with too much negative baggage and favored the term “cell-based meat” instead. So as you can see, the naming of this product is a tricky process.

To include “meat” in the naming of these products will be an important factor for cultured meats success. The fact that meat alternatives are in fact alternative to meat is one of their main selling points. These companies would want to call out this distinction that their products are not made from slaughtered animals.

The naming convention of these products must be appealing to the consumer for it to have mass market appeal rather than the select few consumer groups. When I talked to the CEO of Cellular Agriculture, Illtud Dunsford, he said “Cultured meat products must be marketed in a way that it reaches a global audience.” Mr. Dunsford went on to say “To label this as a slaughter-free meat would be very attractive to those vegan and vegetarian consumers but does not do much for a meat loving person like myself.”

The key to success is the necessity to market cell-cultured meat next to real meat, whilst conveying the message that there is little difference between these products in terms of taste and texture, but conveying the difference in nutritional values. Speaking to the VP of Research & Development at a cultured meat start-up stated that “we expect our products to be positioned next to plant-based meat and real meat on the retail shelves.” The person went on to say that “each product group will have their own advantages and disadvantages, but it will be up to the consumer what they would like to try.”

On the other side of the equation is the traditional livestock industry, the United States Cattlemen’s Association, who petitioned to the USDA in February 2018, calling for the agency to define “meat” narrowly. They argued that for a product to be labelled as “meat”, it has to come from the carcass of an animal. They stated that applying these terms to cell-cultured meat products would mislead the public and consumer, who may not know that the purchased product was derived from stem cells or animal tissues developed in a lab.

This divisive battle got even more heated when the US state of Missouri began regulating meat alternatives. After revising a section of its meat advertising law, they have defined meat as “any edible portion of livestock or poultry carcass or part thereof” and requires that any labeled meat product is derived “in whole or in part, from livestock or poultry.” The states reasoning of this new law is to prevent the consumer from confusion that may be created by plant-based or other synthetic meat products as opposed to meat raised and slaughtered animal.

This has caused outrage among corporations in the meat alternative sector. In August 2018, Tofurkey and the Good Food Institute, sued the state of Missouri accusing it of stifling competition from alternative protein producers. They also dispute that there is no evidence that consumers were confused about meat alternatives: The Office of the Missouri Attorney General, for example, has received no complaints to date from consumers who have been misled from purchasing plant-based meats.

Since many start-ups are still a year or two (or five or ten) away from commercializing their products, the situation has not reached panic mode just yet. From my perspective, for this to work, cultured meat products should have authority to be labeled as meat but it must be accompanied by further description to provide transparency to the consumer. Not only will this appease the cattlemen who are petitioning against the use of ‘meat’ or ‘beef’ but also it is in the interest of the consumer. All groups must reach a harmonized and cooperative federal approach to avoid conflicting regulatory requirements and provide much-needed clarity to developers, manufacturers and consumers.