Animal Rights Groups Don’t Want FSIS to Mandate Identification of Lab-Grown Meat Production Process on Product Labels

By Michelle C. Pardo

Four animal rights groups have submitted a joint public comment in response to the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s (FSIS) advanced notice of proposed rulemaking on the labeling of meat and poultry products comprised of or containing cultured cells derived from animals subject to the Federal Meat Inspection Act or the Poultry Products Inspection Act.

While cell-cultured or lab grown meat (also referred to as “clean meat” or “fake meat”) has been in the headlines for years, the road to federal regulation of such products and their debut on store shelves is still a work in progress.  We previously blogged about animal rights groups’ efforts to stop state consumer fraud laws from limiting their ability to label and market lab-grown, insect or plant-based foods.  (Read those blog entries here; here; here; and here).  But, the bigger stakes (steaks?) regarding meat labeling are set to occur at the federal level during the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)’s rulemaking.

On September 3, 2021 the FSIS published its advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) to solicit public comments and information regarding the labeling of meat and poultry products made using cultured cells derived from animals under FSIS’s jurisdiction.  The purpose: to inform future regulatory requirements for the labeling of such food products.  Back in 2019, the USDA and FDA announced a formal agreement to jointly oversee the production of human food products made from animal cell culture technology.  Under that agreement, FDA will oversee cell collection, growth and differentiation of cells and USDA’s FSIS will oversee the cell harvest, processing, packaging and labeling of products.

On December 8, 2021, Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), and the Humane League filed joint comments that, among other things, seek “equity” and “flexibility” in the new regulations.  Among other comments, the animal rights groups implored FSIS to “reject out of hand any irrational, counterproductive, and potentially dangerous requirements for these new cultured meat and poultry products — as such measures represent nothing more than an attempt to stifle competition and consumer choice.”

In response to FSIS’s question: “Should the name of a meat or poultry product comprised of or containing cultured animal cells differentiate the product from slaughtered meat or poultry by informing consumers the product was made using animal cell culture technology?” the activist groups responded in the negative, citing this practice as “inappropriate” and “confusing to consumers.”

According to these animal rights groups:

“Because cultured meat and meat products are likely to be indistinguishable on a cellular level from slaughter-based meat and poultry products, it would be inappropriate – not to mention confusing to consumers – to require distinct product names for these products.”

In other words, the animal rights groups do not want a consumer to know if the meat they are buying comes from a slaughtered animal or manufactured in a lab, assuring consumers that the lab-grown product “promises” to be no different, and the “available evidence suggests” there are “likely to be no differences of any significance” between traditional meat and that which is artificially grown in a lab setting.  The comments also recognize that there is “no standard means of producing slaughter-free meat and poultry.”  As described by the animal rights groups, cultured meat is developed by taking a tissue biopsy from an animal “and then placing those cells in a sterile tank where they are fed a liquid nutrient solution that contains salts, sugars, amino acids, and growth factors.”  While not describing what is done in the process to render it “sterile,” the lab grown meat is promised to be “free of antibiotic residues, chemicals, and environmental contaminants.”

However, where a product contains both cell-cultured animal cells and slaughtered meat or poultry, the animal rights groups claim that a consumer would be deceived if the slaughtered-meat content was not disclosed on the product labeling.

The animal rights groups suggest that cell-cultured meat producers should not have to disclose that the product was created in a lab because traditionally-produced meat from slaughtered animals does not have to disclose a production method to consumers unless it affects the product “in a manner that is not obvious to consumers in the absence of labeling” (e.g. irradiated) because according to FSIS, these processing methods can cause antimicrobial effects, changes in shelf-life and occasionally, changes in taste, smell and texture.

As for the name of lab-grown meat, the animal rights groups proffer several suggestions, including: “slaughter-free,” “cell-cultured,” “cultivated,” “lab-origin,” “clean,” “kill-free,” and “butcher-free.”  The groups also state that use of the terms “artificial,” “fake,” “imitation,” “synthetic,” and “lab grown” would be “concerning, inflammatory, and inaccurate” and could disparage and handicap the new products and their share in the marketplace.

Other comments submitted in response to the FSIS’s advanced notice of rulemaking can be viewed at: https://www.regulations.gov/document/FSIS-2020-0036-0001/comment