WASHINGTON—Yesterday, Center for Food Safety (CFS) and Food and Water Watch submitted comments to U.S Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), urging the agency to regulate and clearly label novel genetically engineered cell-cultured meat ("lab meat") products. On behalf of its citizen advocacy community, CFS also submitted over 6,000 public comments to the USDA docket that closed yesterday, highlighting consumer concerns around cell-cultured meats' safety and labeling.
"Cell-cultured meats are imitation foods synthesized from animal cells, not meat or poultry that consumers know," said Jaydee Hanson, policy director at CFS. "USDA must ensure that the labels used on these products distinguish the cell-derived imitations from real meat and poultry. USDA should use a label like 'synthetic protein product made from beef cells.' We don't allow artificial vanilla to be called vanilla, but rather call it synthetic vanilla. A similar naming is called for here to avoid confusion."
Cell-cultured, or lab-grown, meat is produced via synthetic biological processes wherein animal cells are extracted and subsequently "fed" fetal bovine serum (the blood of calf fetuses, minus the blood cells) or chemical mixes as they grow in bioreactors. While this method sounds similar to other forms of fermentation, there are marked differences. Unlike conventional meat products, cell-cultured meat is often produced via genetically engineered cell lines that permit cells to grow exponentially. Further, the fetal bovine serum is extracted via inhumane methods.
Most importantly, a host of unanswered safety questions remain. Unlike a live animal, animal cells do not have immune systems to protect from pathogens. Animal cell cultures are frequently infected with bacteria, fungi, and mycoplasma, which along with antibiotics and fungicides added to kill them could end up in the fake meat products. Growth hormones and other potent biochemicals in the bioreactor stew are also a concern, and novel ingredients that are genetically engineered could pose the risks of food allergies.
"Antibiotics and anti-fungal drugs will be unavoidable if cell-cultured meat facilities scale up to any size, and this can only worsen the resistance epidemic that is rendering these life-saving medications useless for ever more people," said Bill Freese, science director at CFS. "The health effects of growth hormone residues and other cell-culture additives in fake meat is also a concern, particularly if they're genetically engineered," he added.
USDA's FSIS is required to regulate the labeling of all meat and poultry products under its authority to ensure products are not misbranded. Consumers are already confused by various food label claims, such as "natural" or "sustainable," on slaughtered meat and poultry products. These labels and others like them are not independently verified and lack clear definitions, underscoring the need for an improved framework for labeling cell-cultured meats.
In the comments submitted today, CFS and allies maintain that synthetic products comprised of cultured animal cells should be clearly differentiated from meat products before they are marketed. The primary criterion for differentiation is whether the product came from a slaughtered animal or from cultured protein, fat, bone, and other cells taken from livestock and poultry.
Any labels used to market cell-cultured meat products should list all ingredients and materials used in the manufacturing process. Consumers should know both about the ingredients in the final product and the ingredients in the laboratory environment in which the cells are being "cultured." These disclosures enable the consumer to make informed moral, environmental, and health choices and should therefore be mandatory.
Lastly, CFS and allies urge USDA's FSIS to look beyond the existing Trump-era regulations for genetically engineered, or bioengineered, food labeling. The 2018 rules (that CFS is challenging in court) include provisions which will leave most GMO-derived foods unlabeled; discriminate against tens of millions of Americans by permitting the use of QR codes; prohibit the use of the widely-known terms "GMO" and "GE"; and prohibit retailers from providing more information to consumers. Cell-cultured meat products should be labeled in a way that enables the consumer to determine whether the manufacturing of the product involved the use of synthetic biology or the use of genetically engineered cell-lines (both in the culturing and in any additives included in the final product).