Lab-grown chicken, beef, and duck products are edging toward the U.S. market—despite enduring confusion about how they’ll be regulated. But language buried in a draft spending bill released by a U.S. House of Representatives appropriations panel this week suggests some lawmakers are eager to get rules in place. A one-sentence proposal in the bill would put the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in charge of regulating products made from the cells of livestock or poultry, and instructs the agency to issue rules about how it will oversee their manufacture and labeling.
Unlike plant-based meat imitations already on the market, lab-grown meat—sometimes called clean meat—starts with an animal. Though production methods vary by company, these futuristic foods start with cells extracted from an animal and cultured to develop into strands of muscle tissue fit for frying in a nugget or pressing into a burger patty.
Since the theatrical unveiling of the first lab-grown beef patty in 2013, several companies have waded into the field of “cellular agriculture,” crafting their own meaty prototypes. San Francisco, California–based Memphis Meats has beef, duck, and chicken under development—with investment from (conventional) meat giant Tyson Foods. JUST, also based in San Francisco, has a chicken product based on cells originally isolated from the feather of a chicken (named Ian). Its CEO has announced hopes of having some of its meat products restaurant-ready later this year.
Aside from sparing animals from slaughter, advocates say, cultured meat would require less energy, take up less land, and release less methane and other greenhouse gases than conventional meat production. But its impending arrival raises questions for regulators—including what actually counts as meat. In February, the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association in Washington, D.C., petitioned USDA to limit the use of the terms “beef” and “meat” on labels to products taken from animals that “have been born, raised, and harvested in the traditional manner.”
But just what USDA’s responsibilities are when it comes to lab-grown meat aren’t clear. The agency’s Food Safety and Inspection Service ensures the quality of meat, poultry, and egg products.The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which reviews the safety of therapies made from human cells and tissues, has jurisdiction over genetically engineered animals such as the fast-growing AquaBounty salmon, which it approved in 2015.
A dish full of animal muscle cells, some argue, looks a lot more like the cell-based products FDA regulators examine than the slaughter lines familiar to USDA inspectors. “The kind of inspection that would take place at a slaughterhouse today is not the type of expertise that would be required in the inspection of a cultured meat facility,” says Isha Datar, executive director of the nonprofit research institute New Harvest in New York City. The group funds research on growing and harvesting animal cells in culture—a field that Datar says still receives relatively little attention from academia. “We’re finding there aren’t even real standards about what makes a chicken muscle cell a chicken muscle cell,” she says. “There’s actually an enormous amount of things that we would have to clarify in order to say that [lab-grown meat] is equivalent to the animal products that we are familiar with.”
The proposal to have USDA regulate cellular agriculture doesn’t have unanimous support, even in the agriculture subcommittee that yesterday advanced the bill to the full Appropriations Committee. Representative Rosa DeLauro (D–CT) argued that the decision is premature. “Presently, I don’t believe we know enough about the strengths and weaknesses of this type of food production,” she says. “We should allow experts to weigh in before taking on this major policy implication.” In March, DeLauro wrote to the U.S. Government Accountability Office to request a review of the regulatory framework for cellular agriculture.
The Good Food Institute, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit that promotes plant-based and cultured meat and dairy alternatives, also hopes the language will be struck from the bill. “It is wrong for Congress to use a spending bill to mandate that agencies create unnecessary new regulations and, even worse, to do so without any input from the small businesses that are being regulated,” Jessica Almy, the institute’s policy director, said in a statement.
The regulatory conundrum facing lab-grown meat—like debates about oversight of genetic engineering—are signs of a regulatory system that hasn’t kept pace with technological advances, says Todd Kuiken, an environmental scientist who studies biotech regulation at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. “We’re in crazy land now. … There’s so much coming at us, that it’s really hard to keep track of all the new products and changing technologies,” he says. “And now we’re getting actual products ready to go and no one’s quite sure what to do with them.”