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A few minutes with NCBA: USDA vs. FDA on fake meat

When it comes to fake meat there is still much to be discovered, and it will take a lengthy and probably cantankerous debate to finally determine the rules of engagement. Danielle Beck, director of government affairs for NCBA, provides the beef industry's perspective.

Late last year, I wrote a column predicting the six greatest challenges to the meat industry in 2018, and number five was plant-based meat substitutes. I wrote that faux burgers and holiday tofurkys were becoming mainstream.

Let's call that prediction a ground-rule double. I should have included "lab" meats or "Frankenmeats" or any of the other dozen or so terms used to describe meat that doesn't come directly from an animal. While plant-based meats are certainly gaining ground, cell-based meats are what's gaining all the headlines. A large part of 2018 was devoted to an interesting intramural tussle between the Food & Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture over which would get to rule this quickly emerging new market.

FDA tried to grab the real meat-free bull by the horns when it convened a meeting among stakeholders to discuss the ground rules. They pointedly did not ask anyone from USDA — the longtime ruler of all things meat and poultry — to attend. Almost every animal agriculture group with a bone to pick objected.

A not-ready-to-admit-being-chastened FDA then participated in a second joint meeting hosted by USDA on Oct. 23-24. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb joined USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue on stage, where they made nice and pledged to work together harmoniously.

Among the several bones to chew was what to call this new lab-based stuff. After an early-October summit among the players in what had, until then, been self-labeled the "clean meat" industry, Brian Spears, chief executive officer and co-founder of cellular agriculture company New Age Meats, told Catherine Lamb, a reporter for a weekly newsletter called "The Spoon," that the "reps of all the existing 'clean meat' companies, except for just a few, met on Friday after the Good Food Conference. We decided that, for the purposes of working with traditional meat companies and U.S. regulators, we are abandoning the term clean meat in favor of cell-based meat."

A wise decision, too. The term enraged producers of traditional meat. It suggested that real meat from a real cow was somehow "unclean." They were also trying to head off a long list of potentially market-destroying terms like Michael Hansen's preferred "lab meat." He's a senior scientist at Consumers Union.

His group surveyed consumers about their preferences with seven possible names. The most preferred, at 35%, was "lab-grown meat" — certainly a scary term producers of those products see as a darkly colored spheroid floating in a punch bowl. Among the other terms assayed in the survey, the least preferred were in vitro meat (8%), clean meat (9%) and cultured meat (11%).

The list is a subtle echo of a statement made by University of California professor Alison Van Eenennaam, who asked Houston Chronicle readers, "Should it be in vitro meat, cellular meat, cultured meat or fermented meat? What about animal-free meat, slaughter-free meat, artificial meat, synthetic meat, zombie meat, lab-grown meat, non-meat or artificial muscle proteins?"

So, after all the pushing and shoving, it's cell-based meat that we might find in or near the supermarket meat case.

Writing forcefully for the "anti-faux meat" group was Greg Bloom, whose "Meatingplace" blog described his visit to SIAL, the huge European-based food show where quite a few imitation meat companies were debuting their products.

According to Bloom, "A start-up U.K.-based company at the show called 'The Meatless Farm' debuted their product, making no claims that their products are meat but, rather, calling them meat-free, plant-based foods. They make no effort to try to fool a consumer into thinking their products are meat with the terms, labels and descriptions they use on their labels or brochures. That's very honest. While they're not great-tasting, at least they're truthful, so I can respect that.

"In stark contrast, the marketing of Los Angeles [Cal.]-based producer Beyond Meat boldly proclaims that their product is meat," he added. "Their brochure and website states: 'Why do you need an animal to create meat? Why can't you build meat directly from plants? It turns out, you can.'"

Bloom closed his rant saying these companies "promote their superiority over meat" by using "beyond" in their names to mean "better than," but "the ingredient statements for each of these is certainly beyond simple, being beyond the comprehension of most consumers at about 20 processed ingredients."

National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. (NCBA) president-elect Jennifer Houston, in a statement prepared for the joint USDA/FDA meeting, pointedly said, “Ensuring lab-grown fake meat products are subject to strong, daily inspection by USDA's trained professionals is essential. The health of consumers is on the line, and USDA is far better suited to ensure the safety of lab-grown products.”

Certainly, the food safety concerns Houston suggests are critical to the consuming public. Little is known about the pathogenic safety of cell-grown meat, and FDA's lax inspection format is extremely risky. Its inspectors visit high-risk plants as infrequently as once every three years. Low-risk plants, which might include these new cell-based meat producers, could expect a visit as seldom as once a decade. USDA, on the other hand, insists on an in-plant presence every day.

The joint FDA/USDA meeting should be considered the tip of a massive jurisdictional iceberg. There is still much to be discovered, and it will take a lengthy and probably cantankerous debate to finally determine the rules of engagement. To get a sense of what beef people think, I called on Danielle Beck, director of government affairs for NCBA. She attended the meeting, so she speaks with firsthand knowledge.

Q Danielle, let's start by defining our terms. I found this definition of lab-grown meat in Wikipedia: “A meat analog, also called a meat alternative, meat substitute, mock meat, faux meat, imitation meat, vegetarian meat or vegan meat; approximates certain aesthetic qualities and/or chemical characteristics of specific types of meat.” We're including cell-based meat as well as purely vegan products. Do you agree with the definition? How should those products be marketed?

A Appropriate categorization and corresponding definition(s) should be determined when lab-grown meat products become available for rigorous, independent, scientific evaluation. Criteria for statements and/or standards of identity should be determined once the scientific community, including meat scientists, have had the opportunity to evaluate the safety, composition, functionality and sensory properties of the resultant product.

That said, it's critical that product labels and associated marketing claims be science-based, truthful and accurate in order to provide consumers with enough information to make informed purchasing decisions. Alternative products should not be allowed to use any descriptors that disparage real beef. While it may be premature to establish definitions for lab-grown meat products, the law is clear when it comes to imitation product labels.

For example, there are several misbranding provisions under the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) applicable to alternative protein products. Specifically, FMIA states that a product is misbranded if: it is an imitation of another food, unless it is labeled as such; if it purports to be a food with a standard of identity without conforming to the standard, or if it misrepresents itself as a food with a standard of fill.

The Food Drug & Cosmetic Act also stipulates that imitation products are misbranded if they are offered for sale under the name of another food product or if they are sold as an imitation of another food unless clearly labeled as an imitation.

The American Meat Science Assn.'s "Meat Science Lexicon" published in June 2018 does include a definition of cell-cultured/in vitro tissue. It states, “As of 2017, research is ongoing to produce animal-sourced food without harvesting animals by culturing muscle tissue from stem cells in a liquid medium (Hocquette, 2016). To be considered meat, these products must be comparable in composition and sensory characteristics to meat derived naturally from animals. In particular, the essential amino and fatty acid composition, macro and micro nutrient content and processing functionality should meet or exceed those of conventional meat.”

NCBA policy is clear: The definition of beef should only include products derived from actual livestock raised by cattle farmers and ranchers and harvested for human consumption.

Q The North American Meat Institute (NAMI) seems to be encouraging the development of these products. They recently co-authored a letter with Memphis Meats, one of the major players in lab-based meat production, urging FDA and USDA to cooperate on regulatory issues.

Mark Dopp, NAMI senior vice president for regulatory affairs, equated Memphis Meat's products with natural meat products, saying, “Why would we treat these products or regulate them any differently than how ground beef is made or how hot dogs are made or how ham is processed?”

Is Dopp correct? Should these lab-based products be treated exactly the same as traditionally derived meat and poultry by the regulatory authorities?

A Any perishable product that scientifically meets one of the definitions laid forth under FMIA (meat, meat food product, meat byproduct) should be held to the same set of standards as real meat products. Primary USDA jurisdiction will ensure that these products are held to the most stringent set of food safety standards and their labeling approval process will prevent false and misleading labels/marketing claims. Those who have called for FDA jurisdiction and/or dual regulatory oversight are seeking to ensure that these products receive special treatment.

Q There is an ongoing and contentious debate about what to properly call these new products. Traditional meat groups, farmers and ranchers seem to be united on one thing: They despise the nomenclature “clean meat.” In interviews with several news outlets, you said it is an offensive term.

Food advocate Marion Nestle, writing in "Food Politics," reported that NCBA was “alarmed by the growing number of flagrantly deceptive food product labels proliferating the marketplace. Consumers have the right to expect that the information on food labels is truthful and not misleading, just as all food products should expect to compete on a fair, level playing field. NCBA firmly believes that the term beef should only be applied to products derived from actual livestock raised by farmers and ranchers.”

When I interviewed you right after the first FDA meeting, you said, “At the end of the day, NCBA cannot support a label that differentiates lab-grown products in a way that's inherently disparaging to traditional beef.”

We know your position. If you were in charge, what should be the proper term? Why?

A It's too early to tell what these products should be called, especially given the lack of objective analysis I referenced earlier. We trust USDA to oversee a transparent labeling process that is based on sound science. Crucially, this labeling process would occur before any products hit the market. The same cannot be said of FDA, which does not require pre-approval of product labels and has consistently failed to enforce product labeling standards.

Q On the same subject, currently, manufactured meat products are considered too pricey for widespread retail sales. With so many restaurant chains incorporating them into their menus, though, it seems evident that costs will come down to the point where they will be price competitive with "real" meat and they will become readily available in supermarkets. Do they belong in the traditional service meat case or maybe the self-service case, where they would compete head to head with the real thing?

A Beef will compete head to head with any product: chicken, pork, tofu, veggie burgers or lab-grown protein. Retailers have the right to display these products as they see fit, but it is critical that consumers are given enough information to make an informed choice. Food safety is also an important consideration when it comes to displaying product.

While it is not appropriate for us to dictate where food products are placed in the grocery store, products are placed in specific areas of retail establishments as a means of mitigating risk from foodborne pathogens, as recommended by FDA's Food Code publication and state/local food safety guidance. Veggie burgers placed in an open-air butcher's case might actually be illegal under the Food Safety Modernization Act. Lab-grown fake meat will likely require its own set of unique retail guidance and risk mitigation measures (e.g., hazard analysis and standard operating procedures).

According to a report by Rabobank in 2017, the current size of the market for alternative protein products is an estimated 120,000 metric tons in the U.S. This estimate includes alt protein use in product form, either as traditional “center of the plate” items, such as burger patties and sausages, or as alternative center of the plate items, such as strips or pieces to add to stir-fry, pasta or rice dishes. A Nielsen Homescan survey commissioned by the Plant Based Foods Assn. last year found that in 2017, 19.5% of food and beverage dollars came from products that met a plant-based diet.

Q One of the constant themes behind manufactured meats is eating less meat is better for animals and the environment. Fact or folly?

A Folly. Beef is a great source of 10 essential nutrients that support a heart-healthy lifestyle, including protein, zinc, iron and B vitamins. The nutrients found in beef provide our bodies with the strength to thrive and grow throughout all the stages of life. Many of the marketers and advocates pushing lab-grown products have an anti-animal agriculture agenda and are not credible sources on the nutritional benefits and environmental sustainability of beef.

Q What are the NCBA's plans to manage this controversy as it moves forward?

A NCBA views the current situation with lab-grown products as a public debate on the appropriate regulatory framework, not a controversy. Sound science and common sense will continue to inform our strategy. NCBA and our affiliates will also continue to press the Administration and Congress for USDA oversight, and we are actively supporting a provision in a congressional spending bill that would clarify USDA's primary oversight role over lab-grown fake meat.

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