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Environmental & Energy,
Administrative/Regulatory

Dec. 14, 2018

Slaughter-free meat comes with regulatory challenges

It is all but certain that the USDA and FDA will play a role in regulating various aspects of slaughter-free meat, but the details still need to be worked out.


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From almost any perspective -- environmental, animal protection, or human health -- it's clear that meat production must change and fast. Not only does factory farming inflict tremendous cruelty on billions of farmed animals every year, it's a major contributor to climate change, water pollution, and air pollution. It also jeopardizes our health. "Slaughter-free" meat, also known as "clean meat," is poised to be the change our food system desperately needs.

"Slaughter-free" meat refers to meat grown from animal cell -- it does not require animal slaughter. It's inaccurate to think of slaughter-free meat as something produced in a petri dish. At scale, slaughter-free meat production is more akin to brewing beer. But before slaughter-free meat will be available at your local grocery store, we need a fair and efficient regulatory framework to ensure safety and accurate labeling. The government is charged with determining whether a food item is safe to eat and sets the parameters for labeling. Slaughter-free meat will be no different.

Industrial Animal Agriculture Is Not Sustainable

Factory farms intensively confine and slaughter billions of animals every year for meat. For people who care about animals, meat without slaughter is cause for celebration. Removing animal slaughter from the equation is also a far more efficient and environmentally sound way of feeding the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, animal agriculture represents nearly 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. This alone should make slaughter-free meat a priority for anyone concerned about the recent studies and dire warnings from scientists about the devastating impacts of climate change on our planet.

As more people become aware of the harms factory farming inflicts on our communities, they are opting for plant-based products instead. Plant-based products are a multi-billion dollar industry that is projected to continue growing. Just in the United States, plant-based food sales exceed $3.7 billion. At the same time, demand for animal products is falling. For example, a study by Mintel determined dairy milk sales decreased by 7 percent in 2015 and is projected to decrease an additional 11 percent through 2020. Considering this trend, slaughter-free meat is almost certain to only further disrupt animal product sales.

Determining a Regulatory Framework for Slaughter-Free Meat

In October, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) held a joint public meeting in Washington D.C. During "The Use of Cell Culture Technology to Develop Products Derived from Livestock and Poultry," government officials from both agencies discussed the current regulatory safety frameworks for foods made using cell culture technology and considerations for devising future frameworks for both safety and labeling. Stakeholder groups and individuals were also given a considerable amount of time to share their thoughts on the regulation of slaughter-free meat.

Multiple commenters focused on potential safety concerns with slaughter-free meat. While ensuring a safe food supply is paramount, these comments fail to take into account the considerable safety risks the slaughter meat industry already poses. Because animals in factory farms are intensively confined in squalid conditions, they are dosed with high amounts of antibiotics to prevent the spread of disease. In 2014, companies sold more than three times the amount of medically important drugs for use in farmed animals than for people. The widespread use of antibiotics in animals intended for human consumption is now contributing to bacterial resistance in humans and the spread of superbugs.

The risk of adulteration during slaughter is also high, and the USDA's recent decisions to expand high-speed slaughtering in both chicken and pig slaughterhouses only exacerbates that risk. These high speeds mean that some pigs and chickens will be improperly and painfully slaughtered, leading to some animals being boiled alive. It also means that slaughterhouse workers will not be able to remove contaminants like hair and toenails from the food supply with the same accuracy as at lower line speeds.

Considering this, it's imperative that slaughter-free meat be regulated in a manner that encourages innovation while ensuring food safety. At the meeting, USDA and FDA officials declared their intention to work together and quickly, perhaps even settling on a regulatory framework by 2019. In terms of expertise, the FDA is better-positioned to take the lead on regulating the pre-market safety of products, considering its experience in regulating other cell culture technology. The agency already oversees the safety of food ingredients and cell-cultured products in cell cultured food ingredients and medical applications.

True to their word, less than a month later, the USDA and FDA issued a joint statement. The announcement from USDA Secretary Purdue and FDA Commissioner Gottlieb announced a regulatory framework where the FDA will oversee "cell collection, cell banks, and cell growth and differentiation." During the cell harvest stage, oversight will transfer to the USDA. The USDA will "oversee the production and labeling of food products derived from the cells of livestock and poultry."

Though it's now certain that both agencies will play a role in regulating various aspects of slaughter-free meat, the details still need to be worked out. Regardless of the ultimate framework, slaughter-free meat is the future of animal agriculture. The government should support its development.

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Aditi Mukherji

Associate Legal Editor
aditi_mukherji@dailyjournal.com

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