The race among startups to create the first meat without slaughter needs a referee, and there's a battle raging over who it will be. In a letter, congressmembers said they were upset that the USDA was not included in an FDA meeting on clean meat. The controversy could prove too much for startups.
The race among startups to create the first meat without slaughter needs a referee — and right now, there's a battle raging over who it will be.
Clean or cultured meat, which is made using animal cells instead of the flesh of slaughtered animals, could decrease waste, lessen the environmental footprint of meat production, and provide a more ethical way to eat meat. While a number of startups are working on creating the first clean meat products, none has yet succeeded in bringing one to market. The technology is early and the products are still too expensive to create something that's viable for retail.
Two main federal agencies oversee the world of meat production: the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But it's unclear which one has jurisdiction of clean or cultured meat, which is continuing to inch closer to our plates.
That could prove to be inconvenient for startups, who may take their products to other countries instead of wading into a federal turf war here in the US. The governments of Israel and Japan, for example, have each recently announced investments in startups working on clean meat and fish.
The battle began earlier this month when, shortly after the FDA announced it was planning to hold a public meeting on the topic of cultured meat, the White House Domestic Policy Council asked members of both the USDA and the FDA to sit down and discuss it.
After that meeting, the USDA expected to be invited to the FDA's public cultured meat meeting (or have the event called off), according to a letter sent Wednesday to the White House budget office by members of two congressional groups overseeing topics related to the USDA and FDA. But that's not what happened, the authors of the letter wrote.
"Our expectation was that the White House meeting would direct USDA and FDA to coordinate on this issue, including the July 12 meeting. However, that was not the result based upon FDA's published agenda," the letter said.
It's unclear what will happen next.
The USDA clearly wants a more prominent seat at the table and a more direct role in the work the FDA is doing on cultured meat.
"While we appreciate the FDA's interest in overseeing aspects of the regulation of these innovative products, the US Department of Agriculture also has an obvious role in ensuring their safety and accurate labeling," the authors of the letter wrote, adding that they felt that the USDA "should be included in the meeting Thursday," but "if that is not possible ... there should be a follow up meeting with both agencies as equal participants."
Thursday's meeting agenda did not include any participation from the USDA.
It did, however, include presentations from several startups working in the space, including two San Francisco-based startups: Just (formerly Hampton Creek), which is known for its vegan mayo and egg scramble and claims to be near finalizing a turkey or chicken-based cultured meat product, and Finless Foods, which is creating fish meat from fish cells.
"We believe we can produce meat that is infinitely more efficient than conventional approaches with a fraction of the greenhouse gas emissions and water use," Peter Licari, Just's Chief Technology Officer, said during a presentation at the meeting. "Despite the challenges ahead ... that’s where we’re headed."
The USDA and FDA appear to agree. Now they just need to figure out how to oversee it.
"Both agencies should be working collaboratively on a scientific approach towards a framework to regulate these products," the letter read.