Special Interest Groups Want to Slaughter the Lab-Grown Beef Business

The cattle industry would rather rent-seek than compete.


Memphis Meats recently unveiled the first lab-grown chicken tender. Photo credit: Ferrari/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Earlier this week, the nation's largest lobby group for beef producers asked federal regulators to prevent the makers of lab-grown meat from calling their products, well, meat.

In comments submitted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) asked the agency to support "meaningful protection for beef nomenclature." Such support, the group argues in its comments, would require the USDA to "limit the definition of 'meat' to tissue or flesh of animals that have been harvested in the traditional manner."

What exactly are they so worked up about?

Lab-grown meats are made by taking cell samples from living animals and reproducing them in a lab. Animal-rights and animal-welfare supporters dig lab-grown meats because they don't require the slaughter of cows or other animals. Proponents claim these foods—just like plant-based meat imitations—are better for the people, the environment, and animals. Opponents, namely beef industry groups like the NCBA, view lab-grown meats as a growing (and misleading) threat to their livelihood.

Plant-based alternatives to meat products that mimic the look and taste of those meat products—e.g., Boca Burgers—have existed for decades. But lab-grown meat is close to debuting, perhaps before the end of 2018. Some have predicted "a meatless food industry featuring lab-grown meat, seafood substitutes, and insect protein [may] be the future of food[.]"

This potential future raises some important questions. How should lab-grown meats be labeled? Should the government set mandatory standards for such labeling?

The NCBA petition urges the FDA and USDA "to prevent misleading marketing labels such as 'clean meat,'" a term lab-grown meat proponents use to distinguish lab-grown meat from traditional meat products.

The NCBA's preferred approach, the group says, "would exclude lab-grown or cell cultured meat products" from USDA oversight (shifting oversight of such products to the FDA, which regulates most foods that don't contain beef, pork, or poultry).

The NCBA submitted its comments in response to a petition submitted in February by another beef lobby, the U.S. Cattlemen's Association (USCA), that urges the USDA to take similar steps to combat what critics dub "fake meat."

The NCBA opposes the USCA petition because, it argues, it doesn't go far enough to squash competitors. Not surprisingly, at least one animal-rights group has commented in opposition to the petition, arguing it goes too far.

While the USDA gathers responses to the petitions, Congress is also moving on the matter.

Last month, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a nonpartisan government agency that advises Congress, to "investigate what regulatory framework, if any, exists for cell-cultured food products and how this framework compares to other international approaches."

I usually disagree with DeLauro on food-policy matters—she's a longtime sponsor of legislation to adopt a national soda tax, for example—but I think her call for the GAO to look into the matter is reasonable.

A good analog to the lab-grown meat issue is GMO labeling. Opponents of GMOs have long argued such laws are necessary to help consumers make informed choices. But, just like beef producers are doing with the issue of labeling lab-grown meat, the reality is GMO opponents mostly just want the government to impose regulations that malign their competitors' products.

But the question of how to label lab-grown meat doesn't offer a slam-dunk answer for either side. On the one hand, meat grown in a lab is undoubtedly produced using a process that differs from the traditional livestock-rearing process. The latter involves raising and killing a living animal, for example, while the former does not. On the other hand, every cell in a lab-grown meat product comes from an animal. A cell taken from a steak is likely indistinguishable from a comparable cell taken from a "steak" grown in a lab.

"I don't think use of the terms 'meat' or 'beef' is anything the government generally or the USDA in particular should regulate," I told Reason's Kayla Stetzel last month. "If the USCA has a problem with its competitors trying to use those words, they should sue."

"It's too early to say whether consumers would be misled by using the word 'meat' to describe lab-grown beef," Stetzel wrote. "Indeed, removing the label could be more confusing."

In that same piece, I characterized the issue as "a legal rather than a regulatory matter." Stetzel's point, which I agree with, suggests both that government action would likely add to any confusion and that courts are indeed the proper forum in which to settle this beef.