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USDA and FDA reach agreement to regulate cell-cultured food products

By Judy Reed

In only a few years, you may be eating a fast food burger with meat that was grown in a lab instead of a pasture.

In the future you could eat a burger that never came directly from a cow.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced on March 7 they had reached a formal agreement to jointly oversee the production of human food products derived from the cells of livestock and poultry.

The formal agreement describes the oversight roles and responsibilities for both agencies and how the agencies will collaborate to regulate the development and entry of these products into commerce. 

“Consumers trust the USDA mark of inspection to ensure safe, wholesome and accurately labeled products,” said USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Mindy Brashears. “We look forward to continued collaboration with FDA and our stakeholders to safely regulate these new products and ensure parity in labeling.”

Under the formal agreement, the agencies agree upon a joint regulatory framework wherein FDA oversees cell collection, cell banks, and cell growth and differentiation. A transition from FDA to FSIS oversight will occur during the cell harvest stage. FSIS will oversee the production and labeling of human food products derived from the cells of livestock and poultry.

On Oct. 23-24, 2018, FSIS and FDA held a joint public meeting to discuss the use of cell culture technology to develop products derived from livestock and poultry. The public meeting focused on the potential hazards, oversight considerations, and labeling of cell cultured food products derived from livestock and poultry.

According to the FDA, “Animal cell culture food technology refers to the controlled growth of animal cells from livestock, poultry, fish, or other animals, their subsequent differentiation into various cell types, and their collection and processing into food.”

During the joint meeting, USDA secretary Sonny Perdue spoke about the projected world population growth of 9 billion people by 2050, and the need to feed them by whatever means available and necessary. “Both agencies must be open to innovation and welcome innovation that feeds people. The projected population of our planet demands it,” he remarked.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, Commissioner of the FDA, spoke at the meeting about how cell-cultured food technology has advanced rapidly over the last few years, with numerous companies working to develop new products. “The FDA has been contacted by several firms wanting to use cell-cultured animal cells from various species,” said Gottlieb. “It’s clear to us cell-cultured products will take many forms—livestock and poultry, and seafood is also on the horizon. At the FDA, we foresee this technology could be used for a variety of multi-component food and food products that can only be imagined right now. And it won’t be long until these products reach a wide marketplace.”
Gottlieb noted that the cost of producing cell-cultured food products is 1/50th of the cost it was just three years ago. “I don’t have a crystal ball to see the future, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see cell-cultured burgers on restaurant menus in the coming years,” he added.

Gottlieb went on to say that safety of the products is at the forefront of their work. He explained that the technology started in the medical field, and that the FDA had already approved many cell-cultured products and issued guidelines for those products. He also noted that a cell-cultured product inserted in the human body was very different than cell-cultured products that are ingested.

You can view the recorded webinar from the public meeting on the FSIS website at www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/newsroom/meetings/past-meetings.

According to a 2017 article titled “Cellular Agriculture: The Future of Food,” by CellAgri, a research and insights platform that provides the latest insights on a range of topics relating to cellular agriculture, several companies have already produced meat and milk products using the technology. It also explains how it works and the reasons to consider it. “Instead of raising, for example, a cow from birth for milk and meat, cellular agriculture presents an alternative way to get the exact same real product without all of the problems associated with raising livestock.”

Advantages it cites to using cellular agriculture is less use of land and water; less gas emissions (methane) into the atmosphere; no antibiotics in the meat, and no E. coli or salmonella infections. The industry often refers to its product as “clean meat.” The article can be found at https://www.cell.ag/cellular-agriculture-future-of-food.

Another article on the website explains more in depth how the process works. In a nutshell, the process takes cells from animals, and grows the cells using liquid solutions in controlled conditions in a laboratory or “brewery.” Read about that at https://www.cell.ag/cell-ag-from-lab-to-market.

An article in Ag Week, titled “Cultured meat: Good or bad, promise or peril?” gives reactions from both proponents and skeptics. Those in favor list some of the same things as above. Skeptics say much more data is needed to support the argument that cell-based meat on a large scale would provide major environmental benefits. One noted that since the cell-based meat isn’t currently mass-produced it’s hard to know how much energy it would use, and that grass eaten by the cows is produced with free solar energy.

Another skeptic in the article noted a UN report that listed cows as “Upcyclers.” 

“A key line from the report said: ‘Livestock, especially ruminants like beef cattle, play a key role in a sustainable food system. They allow us to produce food on marginal lands that are unsuitable for cultivated agriculture. Cattle act as “upcyclers” in our food system—they upgrade plants into high quality protein for people.’ The report also found that 86 percent of what livestock eat globally — mostly grass on land unsuited for crops—is inedible for humans.” Read the entire article here: https://www.agweek.com/business/agriculture/4568613-cultured-meat-good-or-bad-promise-or-peril

Many cattle producers object to the cellular agriculture industry calling their product “clean meat.” That was made obvious in the public comment section that USDA and FDA made available about the issue. In fact, the Tennessee Farm Burea commented in the USDA and FDA public comment section on their website expressing that view. 

“New products should not be able to use the good name of meat and poultry to attract consumers. Likewise, new products should not be allowed to diminish the reputation of traditional meat and poultry products in the labeling. The use of the term “clean-meat” or other such terms designed to rhetorically signify the cell cultured products are of higher quality should not be allowed,” they wrote. To read more of the comments, go to https://www.regulations.gov/docket?D=FSIS-2018-0036.

The Post spoke with some local residents to find out what they thought about this new food technology. Most had not heard of it and were skeptical, wondering how they would know what was in the meat. 

Brent and Jenny Skelonc, owners of Six S Dairy in Nelson Township, have an answer for that. They take pride in the grass fed milk and beef, pastured pork and chicken, and free range eggs they can offer customers. “If you are among the growing population who feel it’s important to know exactly what it is you’re feeding your family, this article just drives home the point of how important it is to personally know your farmers. Know your farmer—know your food. Eat local and support your community,” they said.

To read the complete news release from the USDA/FDA go to https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2019/03/07/usda-and-fda-announce-formal-agreement-regulate-cell-cultured-food.

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