Dan Murphy: FDA (Finally) Slots Alt-Meat Summit

Cell-cultured foods need regulations on food-safety, processes and procedures. ( Farm Journal )

So-called cellular agriculture raises numerous questions about whether the regulations enacted to ensure food safety for conventional animal foods are adequate when applied to alt-meat products.

(Spoiler alert: They’re not).

Because of that uncertainty — as well in response to industry and public pressure — the Food and Drug Administration is planning a public meeting on July 12 to “gather comments and research on foods produced using animal cell culture technology,” according to an agency news release.

That is appropriate, because this is new technology with minimal data on potential food-safety threats.

And by “new,” I mean “complex.”

“We expect that most or all starter cells for food applications will come from living animals for the foreseeable future for commercial and marketing reasons,” said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D. “While currently animal cells can be produced from the starter cells in bioreactors, businesses are also working to commercialize processes by which cells can be cultured using biocompatible scaffolding or other techniques to permit the formation of complex tissues.”

If that sounds wonky, it’s because it is.

You think the science of genetic engineering goes over the heads of most policymakers? Alt-meat production using cell-culture methods is equally opaque.

Examining the Issues
According to the agency, FDA will solicit input on these questions at the meeting:

  1. What considerations specific to animal cell culture technology would be appropriate to include in evaluation of foods produced by this method of manufacture?
  2. What kinds of variations in manufacturing methods would be relevant to safety for foods produced by animal cell culture technology?
  3. What kinds of substances would be used in the manufacture of foods produced using animal cell culture technology, and what considerations would be appropriate in evaluating the safety of these uses?
  4. Are there potential hazards associated with production of cellular foods that are different from those of traditional food production/processing?
  5. Is there a need for unique control measures to address potential hazards associated with production of animal cell-cultured foods?

That’s a lot of “input” to solicit and process in one day, so to help out the folks at FDA headquarters, allow me to address each of those questions.

1). Specific considerations? How about starting with nomenclature? There is currently a controversy over what to call these alt-meat products. The entrepreneurs branding and positioning their creations want to identify them as “beef” or “chicken,” even though they’re not derived from conventional animal agriculture. To avoid problems down the road, if and when such products become price-competitive and thus more widely available, unique names ought to be required so that there is a clear line between meat from livestock and alt-meat from a factory.

2). Safety considerations? You bet these are important, and that’s why FDA should cede oversight authority to USDA, which has the inspectors, the HACCP structure and the statutory muscle to properly regulate products whose potential food-safety threats are as yet unknown.

3). Safety of added “substances?” If we’re talking about the substrates on which the animal cell cultures are to be grown, then yes: There needs to be strict controls and high standards of purity backed by extensive verification and testing — just like traditional meat and poultry processors are required to conduct.

4). Different hazards? Absolutely. The argument often lobbed at meatpackers and poultry processors is that the production volume of modern processing plants turns a single source of contamination into a large-scale foodborne incident. That identical scenario would be in play when cell-culture processes are scaled up to production levels.

5). Unique control measures? Given that cellular agriculture is totally new and unproven as a genuine alternative to conventional animal agriculture, merely tinkering with existing regulations is decidedly not the direction regulators should pursue. The alt-meat sector demands its own set of regs designed to address the critical control points unique to this technology.

Without question, the animal agriculture industry needs to be the most forceful and credible voice at FDA’s meeting next month and interested parties can attend in person or via webcast.

Editor’s Note: To register, contact the CNS Consulting Group at (301) 648-4466 or cindy@cnsconsultinggroup.com. The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.