Lab-grown meat is coming down the pipeline — who do you want inspecting it?

Lab-grown meat is coming down the pipeline — who do you want inspecting it?
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Since 1906, when Upton Sinclair rattled the country with “The Jungle” and argued for oversight of meat plants, the Agriculture Department has regulated and inspected meat products. Meat products bear a USDA seal that reads “inspected and passed” — and when it comes to “inspected,” USDA means business. In fact, U.S. meat and poultry plants and products are arguably the most regulated and inspected American consumer product. 

Sound like “spin?” It’s not. 

I lead the industry’s 112-year-old trade association the North American Meat Institute and, together, my members produce 95 percent of the red meat and 70 percent of the turkey produced in America. We’re proud of the nutrition our products contain and take pride in nourishing consumers throughout North America and the world. 

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As meat producers, we know a lot about the burdens and benefits of being USDA-inspected. Our plants that handle live animals don’t start operating in the morning if federal inspectors aren’t there, and they remain there during every minute of operation. The largest meat plants may have a dozen inspectors per shift, all overseeing food safety, accurate product labeling and humane livestock handling. Plants that process meat are inspected every day and all meat plants operate daily with the understanding that if they don’t fully comply with federal rules at all times, inspectors can — and do — stop production.  

 

There’s no question that USDA inspection is tough, as it should be, and we take pride in the fact that we have to earn USDA-inspected seal on our products. But not everyone is up for that challenge. Most Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulated plants are inspected annually, for instance, or even less often; other industries, like health-care facilities, airplanes, and mining, receive far less oversight and far fewer inspections than meat plants.

Many Americans mistakenly assume the FDA regulates meat, but basically the FDA regulates anything that isn’t meat — be it poultry, egg products or catfish — that’s USDA’s job. The USDA defines meat and approves product labels so consumers know a USDA inspected meat product is what it claims to be. By contrast, consider the FDA-regulated Bacon Tortilla Chips I purchased recently.  After looking closely at a bag with “bacon” — the largest word on the packaging — I noticed tiny print that said the chips were made with an oxymoronic product, “vegan bacon,” which probably tastes as good as “fruitless cherry pie.” 

We need to call products what they are — and regulate them accordingly. 

Recently, a technological advance not yet commercially available called “lab grown” or “cell cultured” meat has generated buzz. Though not yet commercially available, its creators claim that it’s coming soon. There’s no doubt that the R&D teams behind these products have a large mountain to climb to recreate meat’s flavor, texture, affordability and diverse choices, but we welcome new ways to bring meat’s nutrition to consumers. Logic suggests, however, that if the product originates from livestock or poultry cells, and if the manufacturer wants to market the product as meat, then its regulatory home should be the Agriculture Department, alongside all other USDA-inspected meat products in the marketplace. They need to earn the privilege to be called meat, with the same tough regulatory oversight that is just a normal day in the world of a meat packer.

Americans expect a fair and level playing field, especially in the marketplace. To the innovators of lab-grown meat, I say congratulations on your progress, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t market the product as meat and seek to enjoy the infrequent, less burdensome FDA regulatory system. USDA’s comprehensive inspection system encompassing everything from food safety to label approval is necessary to ensure meat marketed to consumers is safe, regardless of the path it takes to market. We meet the challenge of USDA inspection every day and you should, too. 

Barry Carpenter is president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute, the oldest and largest trade association representing U.S. meat packers and processors.