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A few minutes with NCBA's Danielle Beck: Bizarre FDA fake meat meeting

NCBA's Danielle Beck answers questions related to the Food & Drug Administration recent meeting on ‘cultured’ meat.

There has always been one constant in government food safety oversight: if it was meat, it belonged to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service (USDA-FSIS). That small group of experienced and well-trained people have the experience -- both good and bad -- to do the job extremely well. So, it was an unexpected shock when the Food & Drug Administration decided to call a meeting to discuss how to handle the inevitable rise of ‘cultured’ meat. Interestingly, the USDA was not on the official invitation list.

The people who were invited were a curious bunch; a few made sense, too many did not. Did FDA intentionally try to stack the deck or was it too new at this to know the real, vitally involved stakeholders? The meeting room seemed more politically nuanced than scientifically sound.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn. (NCBA) tried to hit the reset button early. On April 10, Danielle Beck participated in her organization’s “Beltway Beef” podcast and pointed out the inevitable problems that would be caused by FDA taking jurisdiction over what’s been called lab meat, in vitro meat or frankenmeat. Her position is that USDA has the skillset to handle this relatively new product category; FDA does not.

Just a few weeks before the FDA-called meeting, Beck issued a press release with this unusually stern warning: “The Food & Drug Administration’s (meeting) announcement disregards the authorities granted to USDA under the Federal Meat Inspection Act, as well as USDA's significant scientific expertise and long-standing success in ensuring the safety of all meat and poultry products. Under the current regulatory framework, FDA plays an important role in terms of ensuring the safety of food additives used in meat, poultry, and egg products. All additives are initially evaluated for safety by FDA, but ultimately FSIS maintains primary jurisdiction.”

Neverthelesss, FDA persisted. They scheduled the meeting pointedly without any input from USDA, glossing over its decades of direct experience and the huge knowledge base. NCBA was annoyed. So were many other stakeholders.

Barry Carpenter, CEO of the North American Meat Institute, correctly stated in an editorial he wrote for The Hill, “USDA defines meat and approves product labels so consumers know a USDA inspected meat product is what it claims to be. By contrast, consider FDA-regulated Bacon Tortilla Chips I purchased recently. After looking closely at a bag with ‘bacon’ -— the largest word on the packaging —- I noticed tiny print that said the chips were made with an oxymoronic product, ‘vegan bacon,’ which probably tastes as good as ‘fruitless cherry pie.’” 

Using his logical mind, he wrote. “… if the product originates from livestock or poultry cells, and if the manufacturer wants to market the product as meat, then its regulatory home should be the agriculture department, alongside all other USDA-inspected meat products in the marketplace. They need to earn the privilege to be called meat, with the same tough regulatory oversight that is just a normal day in the world of a meat packer.

Jurisdiction might boil down to a definitional issue. If it is to be defined as meat, a USDA spokesperson told Politico, “According to federal law, meat and poultry inspections are the sole purview of USDA, so we expect any product marketed as ‘meat’ to be USDA’s responsibility. We look forward to working with FDA as we engage the public on this issue.”

Which means if the label suggests that these items are not meat, those products belong to FDA. Calling these lab-grown, meat-like substitutes something other than meat is a definition that this emerging industry will stoutly resist. They have worked long and hard to hitch their marketing wagon to the good image of fresh, red, straight-from-the-cow beef and directly-from-a-hog’s-hindquarters pork. 

They know it only too well. ‘Petri Dish Produced Imitation Pork’ is not a strong selling point.

To get a firm handle on NCBA’s position, I contacted Beck and posed a few questions. Here is what she said:

Q. Danielle, let’s start with the curious make-up of the participants in the Thursday meeting. USDA wasn't there which led to a comical Tweet by the North American Meat Institute's CEO, Barry Carpenter. Who were some of the more important stakeholders in attendance?

A. It’s critically important that this Administration get the regulation of lab-grown meat products right for all vested stakeholders, including both traditional producers as well as the purveyors of lab-grown meat products. The exclusion of USDA from the process was extremely disappointing.

But it did not stop there. In addition to excluding USDA officials from the public meeting, FDA chose to stack the meeting with fake meat manufacturers, including some anti-animal agriculture activists. Start-up companies engaged in manufacturing lab-grown fake meat and a non-profit that supports their cause (New Harvest) were afforded prime slots on an official stakeholder panel.

That said, it was also critical that groups like NCBA who oppose FDA’s unilateral assertion of regulatory authority were in attendance, and we were grateful for the opportunity to represent U.S. beef producers in our oral comment.

Q. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb opened up the meeting with a comment about the technology behind lab meat has surpassed the FDA's understanding of the science. Susan Mayne, director of food safety and applied nutrition at FDA, seemed to contradict him when she said the FDA has been working with the industry for several years to help startup firms prepare for regulatory approval and market access. 

 Exactly where is FDA on these products? Regulatory issues aside, are they really ahead of USDA on the science behind lab meat and better prepared than USDA?

A. Both agencies bring different regulatory strengths to the table, and we expect them to collaborate in areas where it makes sense. However, FDA’s claims were not only premature, they were in blatant disregard of the law. The Federal Meat Inspection Act and subsequent federal regulations are quite clear: USDA should be the primary regulatory of these products.

Further, FDA’s recent tone and actions seem to directly contradict President Trump, who just a few days after FDA’s announcement of a public meeting, released a government reorganization plan which renames FDA the “Federal Drug Administration” and entrusts USDA with all food safety oversight, based on its long-standing success in ensuring the highest food safety standards and significant scientific expertise across the farm to fork continuum.

Q. You said, “We believe USDA FSIS is the best agency out there equipped to regulate these products from a safety perspective, but also from the labeling perspective because of the mandatory labeling pre-approval process. That is a powerful regulatory tool that FDA just doesn’t have.”

The National Pork Producers Council and the U.S. Cattlemen's Assn. agree with you. Because meat has always been under USDA's jurisdiction, are we witnessing what's been called a turf battle or a land grab by FDA or does its broader definition of food give them defensible regulatory power?

A. Any fair reading of existing laws clearly define USDA as the primary regulatory authority over these products. It’s important to note that FDA is forging ahead with its unilateral plans over the objections of Congress, who sent a letter to the White House expressing displeasure with FDA’s approach to the public meeting. It would appear FDA officials are looking for ways stay relevant and build credibility on these issues. Unfortunately for them, the law is not on their side.

Q. A story in the Washington Post correctly noted that "Ranchers have already begun bristling at the aggressive branding of 'clean meat' over 'cultured' or 'lab-grown' meat that more clearly declare its products’ origins."  

 You were quoted in the story. “We have a big problem with that,” you said. “It implies something negative about our own product, and we don’t believe that has a basis in science or fact.”

 Is this a purely labeling issue or the beginnings of a PR initiative?

A. The activists pushing the title of “clean meat” are pretty clear about their intentions. The Good Food Institute (GFI), which is a leading advocate of fake meat companies, has stated on record that they tested many different terms before landing on “clean meat.” The GFI website states: “Our goal is not to express what is scientifically accurate, but to elicit the most public support for the product.”

Ultimately, GFI’s end-goal is to replace traditional production with lab-grown. They want to put family-owned farms and ranches out of business. Consumers deserve better than that, and our nation’s farmers and ranchers deserve better.

That said, this issue is much bigger than labeling, a public reltions battle, or even a typical DC food fight. We already know that USDA can be trusted to ensure false and misleading product labels never hit the marketplace, and more importantly, the agency has the appropriate mechanisms in place to ensure a fair, even playing field for all meat products (regardless of production) as well as the capabilities to maintain stringent food safety standards across the board.

Q. Let's talk about the proper name for these products. During the meeting, Rhonda Miller, former president of the American Meat Science Assn., called it “cultured tissue." Michael Hansen, a senior scientist for Consumers Union, called it "lab meat."

He described a recent Consumer Reports survey that asked respondents which of seven terms would be the most accurate label. The least preferred were in vitro meat (8%), clean meat (9%), and cultured meat (11%).

The most preferred name at 35% was 'lab-grown meat,' certainly a term Memphis Meats and other producers of similar products see as a well-rotted albatross strung around their corporate necks.

Let's assume that this is the best of all possible worlds and you can select the proper name. What would it be? Why?

A. Product labels and corresponding marketing claims should ultimately be determined through a public process led by USDA. This would be consistent with existing practices and ensure labels are created using a transparent, science-based rule making. 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.

Q. The conversation -- or battle, if you will -- will likely go on for quite a while. What actions are NCBA prepared to take to prevail in the long run?

A. NCBA is no stranger to drawn-out regulatory battles, but we are taking this one step at a time. We’ll continue working with our allies in the Administration and on Capitol Hill to ensure lab-grown meat products are safe and accurately labeled for consumers.

At the end of the day, we welcome the competition. We know our product will win if we compete on a level playing field with equal regulation.

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