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How will lab meats be regulated for safety?

Ensuring food safety should be a top priority as the USDA and FDA finalize regulatory framework to oversee cell-cultured protein production.

Lab meat has certainly been a hot topic in the last year. While it’s not a product I’m particularly interested in consuming myself, it has drawn the attention of major investors like Cargill, Tyson, Bill Gates, Richard Branson and many more.

These meat alternatives also appeal to much of our urban audience, who has been told by these emerging cell-cultured protein companies that their products are “cleaner” with an edge in everything from environmental sustainability to antibiotic use to nutrition.

Earlier this week, Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) told Veg News, "You see the planet earth moving towards what is the Standard American Diet. We’ve seen this massive increase in consumption of meat produced by the industrial animal agriculture industry. The tragic reality is this planet simply can't sustain billions of people consuming industrially produced animal agriculture because of environmental impact. It’s just not possible.”

Meanwhile, the EAT-Lancet Commission report, which was released in January, urges people to dramatically slash their red meat consumption in order to save the planet.

And Representative Alexandria Osacio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) made headlines this week when she proposed we eliminate “farting cows” to achieve zero emission status in the United States.

Yes, whether we like it or not, 2019 may be the year we see ramped-up attacks on beef production with more push for plant-based diets, meat-free alternatives, copycats and petri-dish products. We can also expect beef production will continue to be the target in climate change discussions.

I believe beef can compete with any of these products, but it’s frustrating to see how far these companies are willing to go to damage beef’s reputation as they work to gain shelf space in the meat case.

So you might wonder where these cell-cultured protein companies are in the process to enter the marketplace.

Last October, the USDA and FDA held a joint public meeting to discuss the regulatory framework and oversight of these products. Since then, the two organizations have worked to determine the best route for ensuring the safety of these protein products during the production and manufacturing processes.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) gives us an update on what this oversight might look like in a recent “Fake Meat Facts” sheet. Answering specific questions about these products, NCBA explains what we know so far:

1. Will the FDA evaluate the pre-market safety of the products?
The initial announcement of the regulatory framework made no mention of a pre-market safety
evaluation, which FDA has traditionally been responsible for conducting.

2. Will a USDA veterinarian inspect animals that provide cells for the culturing process?
Ante-mortem inspection of every animal is a fundamental component of inspection and should be applied to livestock used in the cell-cultured protein manufacturing process.

3. When and how will oversight of the production process transition from FDA to USDA?
The framework notes that an oversight transition will occur during the “cell harvest stage” but does not provide details on the specific timing and mechanics.

4. How will antibiotics be used in the production process?
Despite the claims of some manufacturers, independent scientists have noted that antibiotics will be used in the production process and raised questions about the impact on the finished food product.

5. How will food safety risks change when cell-cultured products are manufactured at commercial scale?
Risks associated with commercial production may differ from the risks associated with production in the research and development phase.

6. Is the finished product safe for human consumption?
Fake meat industry representatives claim that the technologies used in cell-cultured manufacturing are widely used and understood, but the finished product must still be evaluated for safety.

7. How does the finished product compare to conventionally-produced meat on a scientific level?
Manufacturers claim that cell-cultured products will be identical to conventional meat but have thus far not provided evidence of compositional and nutritional similarities.

8. Have the finished products been analyzed by independent scientists?
In the absence of independent, scientific evaluation of cell-cultured products, assessments will be based on the unverified claims of manufacturers and limited academic research.

Reading through these facts perhaps gives us some insight, but it still leaves more questions than answers. This is because, so far, very little actual information has been released by these companies on their processes, their research, the nutritional information of their products and more.

As this information comes to light, I’m sure we’ll have more to discuss on this topic. In the meantime, I’m thankful for the joint regulatory framework provided by both USDA and FDA, which I believe is the most effective way to oversee and enforce the food safety guidelines that should be required of these protein products.

The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com or Farm Progress.

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