Murphy: Setting a Trap for Alt-Meat?

Should alt-meats follow the same regulations as meat, and if so, what will that mean to the fledgling business model? ( freeimages.com )

We’re seeing interesting developments in the brewing battle over the regulatory status of alt-meat products now in the marketplace.

Two industry groups are pressuring federal regulators, but with different approaches to how these so-called cultured meats, or “clean meat” products (as the emerging sector’s leading entrepreneurs prefer to position their creations) should be named.

Back in February of this year, the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association petitioned USDA to enact labeling rules that would exclude cell-cultured products. In a lengthy petition, the group staked out its position, which stated:

“[The government] should require that any product labeled as “beef” come from cattle that have been born, raised, and harvested in the traditional manner, rather than coming from alternative sources such as a synthetic product from plant, insects, or other non-animal components and any product grown in labs from animal cells.”

That’s a pretty straightforward argument: Only animal products from actual living cattle or pigs should be allowed to be labeled as “beef” or “pork.” It’s a defensive maneuver designed to hamstring the alt-meat manufacturers in the marketplace.

One can easily understand the protective instincts driving that initiative.

However, as noted in this space on previous occasions, the target demographic likely to embrace these new products are doing so because they don’t want conventional meat products. Whether from concerns about the eco-impact of livestock production or driven by issues related to animal welfare, these target consumers are seeking alternatives that don’t “come from cattle that have been born, raised, and harvested in the traditional manner.”

It’s very possible that calling the protein products derived from cell cultures something other than beef would hype, not hinder, their sales.

Complying with Similar Standards
The labeling issue just got more interesting, though, as last week the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association basically urged USDA to rule in the opposite direction.

Earlier, NCBA listed “fake meat” as one of the top five issues the organization planned to tackle in 2018, as the group’s leadership vowed to “protect our industry and consumers from fake meat and misleading labels.”

But in a letter sent last week to Carmen M. Rottenberg, USDA Acting Deputy Undersecretary for Food Safety, NCBA stated that, “If producers of lab-grown or cultured meat products wish to call these products meat, they must adhere to the same stringent food-safety inspection standards and comply with the same set of labeling mandates as all other traditional meat food products.”

Is NCBA giving alt-meat manufacturers equal footing among conventional meat producers? Sure seems like it.

NCBA director of government affairs Danielle Beck told the news website Quartz.com that ranchers are happy to compete with cell-cultured and plant-based meat alternatives. “This isn’t about being protectionist in any way,” she said.

But NCBA’s strategy might be hoping to pull the alt-meat start-ups into a trap.

That’s because there is a vocal segment within the alt-meat sector that has expressed concerns that, if regulated under existing USDA regulations, they would not have the same leverage within the department as livestock and meatpacking groups and thus would be forced to compete on a less-than-level playing field.

In a statement, NCBA urged USDA to “assert jurisdiction over foods consisting of, isolated from or produced from cell culture or tissue culture derived from livestock and poultry animals or their parts.”

The group argued that USDA, not FDA, is the appropriate agency to regulate lab-grown meat, as its Food Safety and Inspection Service has “the technical expertise and regulatory infrastructure to ensure perishable meat food products are safe for U.S. consumers.”

It’s a valid argument to assert that since the alt-meat manufacturers harvest stem cells from food animals to culture their products, they are — technically — meat, and thus under the purview of USDA.

That is likely to change going forward, however, as researchers are already on the cusp of culturing protein products from other cells (feathers, hair follicles, etc.), not muscle cells.

That said, there is little unanimity among the different segments of the larger meat and poultry industries as to how best to lobby for labeling regulations that would benefit conventional growers, ranchers and producers. Neither the National Pork Producers Council nor the National Chicken Council have issued policy statements on the issue, and as has happened many times in the past, when animal agriculture doesn’t have a united voice on issues of concern, the results are usually less-than favorable.

The bottom line is that alt-meat products are here to stay. They’re going to achieve a higher profile, garner increased media coverage and slowly but surely build sales volume as price points moderate, due to more efficient economies of scale.

No amount of strategizing on how to constrain the way they’re labeled will change any of that scenario.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.

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