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Cell-Based Meat: The Great Debate

Food Integrity Campaign | November 7, 2018

Food Integrity Campaign (FIC) staff spent two days at a recent joint meeting of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about cell-based meat. FIC defends transparency and truth-telling in the food system, a position that often leads us to criticize the industrial meat and poultry industry. Watching this meeting felt like watching that industry being disrupted in real time, with the very real possibility of an alternative coming to market.

First, government officials presented information about regulations that could apply to cell-based meat, and then representatives from cell-based meat companies and the  meat and poultry industries responded, as did consumer safety and animal welfare groups. While every speaker agreed that cell-based meat needs to be safe to eat and labeled clearly, to say they didn’t agree on how to do that would be putting it lightly.

Livestock and meat industry representatives rejected the use of the word “meat” on a label to describe, as one called it, “lab-based fake meat.” Those speakers argued that cell-based meat must adhere to the same food safety and quality standards that the USDA requires for traditionally-raised meat, boasting that they weren’t afraid of competition on a fair playing field. Just don’t call it meat, they say, just as they have petitioned FDA to prohibit plant-based food companies from using animal-based terms such as “milk” or “burgers” for almond milk and veggie burgers.

Cell-based meat industry representatives countered that it would be “dishonest” to call their product anything but meat. They most commonly suggested using the term “cell-based meat” to describe their product. After all, the product will consist of animal cells and will be made in facilities that are similar to existing food processing facilities, not laboratories. In blind taste tests, prototypes so far compare well with traditionally-raised meat. As one speaker put it, cell-based meat is not “like” meat, it is meat!

Animal rights representatives joined the defense of cell-based meat, which they termed “slaughter-free.” Their vision of a fair playing field requires traditionally-raised meat to have labels describing the conditions in which animals are raised on factory farms, so consumers could truly compare the processes by which cell-based meat and traditionally-raised meat are made.

A beef industry representative characterized these speakers as “anti-animal agriculture activists,” and that outcry brought cell-based industry speakers back to the microphone to express their belief that consumers will choose cell-based meat because it is better for animal welfare and the environment than traditionally-raised meat.

Both the heads of the USDA and the FDA expressed enthusiasm for the new cell-based technology and willingness to collaborate on regulations, but it is clear their task is just beginning. FIC will keep you posted on this important and evolving debate.

2 Comments

  1. Matt says:

    What exactly is the factual argument against “slaughter-free” as the descriptor?Report

  2. FIC Staff says:

    Thanks for your question, Matt! Deciding what words should be used on a food label gets into some technical regulatory territory, as you just read above. Opinions vary on what is “true and not misleading” on a food label. The “traditional” meat and poultry industry would argue that “slaughter-free” casts undeserved negative light on the meat industry.Report

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