UACES Facebook Lab-produced meats face legal hurdles, consumer acceptance challenges
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Dec. 13, 2019

Lab-produced meats face legal hurdles, consumer acceptance challenges

By Fred Miller
U of A System Division of Agriculture

Fast Facts:

  • Panel examined consumer and regulatory considerations of lab-grown meats
  • Interest driven by meat eaters and meat companies
  • Trends suggest incremental acceptance of cultured meats

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — What do you call a food product made of animal muscle fiber when no animals were used in the making of it?

CAST Animal Group Tour
FUTURE PROTEIN -- Chicken and other meats grown in a lab instead of animals may soon show up in the grocery. But there are regulatory and consumer acceptance hurdles to overcome. (UA System Division of Agriculture photo by Fred Miller)

What’s in a name comes with significant impacts when it’s attached to a beef, poultry or fish product grown in a lab, particularly when it may be coming to a restaurant or grocery near you sooner than you think.

A panel discussion on the “Future of Protein” covered the legal, economic and industry hurdles between the cell culture and the dinner table during the annual meeting of the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology hosted by the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture and held at the Milo J. Shult Agricultural Research and Extension Center.

Lab-Grown Meat

The first “test tube” burger debuted in 2013 in London. It was produced by Mark Post of Maastricht University, the Netherlands, and cost more than $300,000, said Rodolfo Nayga, Distinguished Professor and Tyson Chair in Food Policy Economics for the Division of Agriculture’s department of agricultural economics and agribusiness.

Today, researchers are producing beef, chicken and fish in laboratories, Nayga said.

To produce meat in a lab, Nayga said, tissue samples are taken from a host animal. From tissue taken from a cow or steer, for example, stem cells are extracted and grown into muscle fibers in cultures. The growth process takes about six weeks.

The muscle fibers have to be joined with a substrate to form meat. Post’s hamburger patty, for example, was colored, minced and mixed with fats before being shaped into a burger, Nayga said. Other companies use vegetable tissue, like spinach, to join the muscle fibers into meats. At least one company is experimenting with using celery for this purpose.

Laboratory-grown meats are a new entry to a growing trend in alternative protein foods, said Justin Whitmore, executive vice president for alternative protein for Tyson Foods.

Whitmore participated in the CAST panel discussion. He said trends leading to alternative protein foods are being driven today by motivations beyond a demand for legacy vegetarian and vegan options.

“Alternative proteins are experiencing double-digit growth across the country,” Whitmore said.

He said 57 percent of that growth in the U.S. is driven by desire for improved health and wellbeing, 25 percent by taste and convenience, and 13 percent by concerns for sustainability.

“In Europe,” Whitmore said, “Those driving forces are flipped, with sustainability leading consumer demand for alternative protein products.”

This new trend in alternative protein demand is being led by meat eaters, not vegetarians, Whitmore said. That’s Tyson’s core market, and the company is taking an interest while reinforcing that traditional proteins like beef, pork and chicken are still consumers’ No. 1 choice. “Protein consumption today is about ‘and’ not ‘or’ and giving consumers choices.”

“We want to be a leader in protein and protein innovation,” he said.

Federal Oversight

As a result of a recent interagency agreement, federal oversight of laboratory-produced meat, like most foods, is under the overlapping authorities of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Food and Drug Administration, said Elizabeth Rumley, senior staff attorney with the National Agricultural Law Center, a unit of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

In March of this year, Rumley said, an FDA and USDA memorandum of understanding stated, in brief, that FDA will oversee the collection and growth of cultured cells, and USDA will oversee the processing of cells into meat, and be responsible for labeling.

“This is important because each agency performs its duties differently,” Rumley said. “For example, FDA conducts inspections of food production establishments and warehouses, and collects and analyzes samples for contamination. FSIS inspectors are physically present at all times a slaughter plant is in operation. They are present at least part of each day in facilities where meat and poultry products are further processed.”

Rumley added that FDA does not pre-approve labels for food products, but FSIS must give prior approval for all labels used for meat and poultry products before they can be marketed.

Federal oversight will also take up the question of what lab-produced meat can be called, Rumley said.

A proposed law, the Real Marketing Edible Artificials Truthfully Act, or MEAT Act, introduced in October by congressmen Roger Marshall (R-Kansas) and Anthony Brindis (D-N.Y.), is aimed at labeling alternative proteins with names that indicate they are something other than meat harvested from production livestock.

On the state level, beginning with Missouri in late 2018, Rumley said, more than half of U.S. states have already passed or proposed such laws aimed at enforcing new labeling requirements.

The Arkansas legislature passed a “truth in labeling” law this year that sets required definitions for beef, meat, pork and rice, Rumley said. It prohibits the use of terms that are the same or similar to terms used or defined to refer to specific agricultural products.

“It’s unusual for this many states to pick up a topic that is so new so quickly,” Rumley said.

Consumer Acceptance

Settling on an official regulatory name is one thing. Finding a name that meets regulatory requirements without driving away consumers is another ball of the same wax.

What lab-grown products are called has an impact on consumer acceptance, Nayga said.

Would you buy a product labeled “cell-cultured meat?” How about “fake meat?” Or “clean meat,” “slaughter-free meat” or “lab-produced meat”

And there’s the USDA-preferred “human food produced using animal cell culture technology.”

Nayga, working with visiting researcher Daniele Asioli and visiting scholar Claudia Bazzani, conducted a pilot survey study to see if consumers in this country would accept and value lab-produced meat. Their study investigated consumer willingness to pay for lab-produced chicken.

The cost is already trending downward, Nayga said. From that $300,000 burger in 2013, the cost is down to $100 per pound from Israel-based Aleph Farms. “Industry insiders say U.S. companies are getting the cost to $50 per pound,” Nayga said.

“It remains to be seen if they can make costs competitive in the near future,” he said.

The pilot study also investigated whether the use of different names for lab-produced meat would change the “willingness to pay” values. They used names like “cultured,” “lab-grown” and “artificial.”

Nayga said, “There tends to be a bias between what people say they are willing to pay for a product and what they actually are willing to pay, which is usually lower than what they say.” He said their study took this potential bias into account.

“The results of our pilot study suggest that U.S. consumers generally would value lab meat less than conventional meat at the moment,” Nayga said. “But things could change if the lab meat companies can produce lab meat at a lower cost in the future, and hence offer lab meat at a lower price at the retail level to consumers.”

Nayga said consumers with a higher knowledge of lab-grown products and of the technology used to produce them tend to value them more than those who don’t.

Meat companies, apparently, believe consumer acceptance is on the horizon. Nayga said Tyson Foods invested in Memphis Meats, a Berkeley, Calif., startup whose investors also include Cargill, Bill Gates and Richard Branson.

The trend toward investing in and developing lab-produced meats is international, Nayga said, with startup companies forming in Israel, the Netherlands, and Japan, among others. China has already signed a $300 million trade agreement with Israel to import lab-grown meat from three Israeli companies, he said.

Remaining Questions

Nayga said further research is required to answer a lot of questions that remain. From a consumer standpoint, how do sensory qualities like taste and texture affect consumer acceptance?

Other questions include whether cultured meat spoils at the same rate as conventional meat, whether it allows the same growth rate of potentially harmful microbes. Will lab-produced meats have shelf life comparable to natural meat, and does it have the same nutritional qualities?

Also, Nayga said, a larger study is needed to determine how political orientation or attitudes toward animal protection, the environment or religion affect consumer acceptance.

“We believe consumer acceptance and market growth will be incremental,” Tyson’s Whitmore said. “I anticipate that alternative proteins will be part of the market. They won’t replace traditionally grown meats.”

Consumer acceptance of lab-grown meat may indeed be incremental, but Nayga said some have seen it as inevitable. He quoted Winston Churchill, who said in 1932, “… fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”

Sustainability requirements may also make cultured meat more attractive, Nayga said. Labs might one day produce larger quantities of sustainable meat while using less water, land and energy and producing less carbon dioxide.

Nayga quoted Bill Gates from his personal blog: “Put simply, there’s no way to produce enough meat for 9 billion people. Yet we can’t ask everyone to become vegetarians. That’s why we need more options for producing meat without depleting our resources.”

To learn more about Division of Agriculture research, visit the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station website: Follow us on Twitter at @ArkAgResearch and Instagram at ArkAgResearch.


About the Division of Agriculture

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s mission is to strengthen agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture conducts research and extension work within the nation’s historic land grant education system.

The Division of Agriculture is one of 20 entities within the University of Arkansas System. It has offices in all 75 counties in Arkansas and faculty on five system campuses.

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs and services without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.

Media Contact: Fred Miller
U of A System Division of Agriculture
(479) 575-5647

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