A new bipartisan bill sponsored by Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY) and co-sponsored by Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) aims to safeguard accurate and transparent labeling of food products created using animal cell-culture technology—sometimes known as “lab-grown” meat.
The bill follows a March 2019 formal agreement (or memorandum of understanding) between the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the FDA. In that agreement, FSIS and FDA announced that the two agencies would share oversight of food for human consumption produced using cultured animal cells.
The bill, put forward in mid-December by senators Enzi and Tester and called the “Food Safety Modernization for Innovative Technologies Act,” gives the USDA and FDA March agreement legal heft over products made out of cultivated animal cells. FDA will provide oversight of these products through production and cultivation up to the point of harvest, after which USDA will oversee processing, packaging, and labeling.
“Emerging technologies may reshape the food industry in the coming years,” says Sen. Enzi. “Existing food safety laws were drafted long before these technologies were contemplated. Our legislation would create an up-to-date framework in law so agencies appropriately work together to ensure folks know what they are eating and that it is safe.”
The issue, Tester says, is encouraging consumer confidence through food-chain transparency. “Americans shouldn’t have to guess what they are buying at the grocery store checkout line,” he added. “If cell-based meat is sold next to real Montana beef at the store, the labeling should be clear to consumers so that folks can make informed choices about what they’re feeding their families.”
Brian Sylvester, special counsel and food and drug lawyer for Washington D.C.-based law firm Foley & Lardner talked to Food Quality & Safety about the proposed legislation. “When it comes to food tech, both the FDA and USDA have accommodated new innovations into the existing regulatory framework for years: I think this is absolutely the correct approach,” he says. “It affords developers the predictability and regulatory certainty that is needed for any early-stage technology.”
Legislative activity around labeling has become important, Sylvester added, with states proposing and sometimes passing bills preventing products made of cell- or plant-based artificial meat from being labeled as “meat,” “beef,” or “burger.”
“The ongoing legislative activity at the state level may influence the ongoing regulatory conversation at the USDA which, under its [agreement] with FDA, will be taking the lead on labeling oversight for cell-cultured meat and poultry at the federal level,” Sylvester says. “Key issues are whether current standards of identities for meat and poultry products apply to cell-based foods, and whether current food law mandates cell-based foods to bear labeling that indicates their unique production method.”
Sylvester stresses the need to avoid making new rules and laws, if possible. Such a process can take years and potentially restrict product development efforts, he says. Accordingly, he supports the move to fit new technological innovations into existing rules.
He also notes that the March 2019 agreement between FDA and USDA “is premised on existing precedents in American food law, and so codifying the [agreement] into law is not actually necessary.” However, he adds, “the devil will be in the details; the regulators have since set up working groups focused on issues like premarket safety and labeling. It is likely that we will see more detailed guidance from the agencies going forward.”