There is ongoing development of cell-based or lab-grown meat products by numerous companies around the world. It is understandable that the introduction of these products has generated many questions, concerns and confusion among livestock producers and meat consumers.
Alternative Meat Products
Alternative meat products fall into two major classifications 1) Plant-based and 2) Cell-based. Plant-based products are derived from plant ingredients such as pea protein or wheat protein, and while they may use different ingredients or technologies to simulate a meat-eating experience, they do not contain animal protein. Plant-based alternatives have been available in the marketplace for several years.
Animal protein products derived from laboratory cell culture have been subject to a wide variety of names including: cultured meat, fake meat, synthetic meat and in vitro meat. While the nomenclature has not been firmly established, most involved in this space have settled on “cell-based” or “cell cultured meat” for the time being. It is important to note that these products are derived from animal cells and differ significantly from plant-based products. Currently no cell-based products are approved or available for sale to the public.
Production of Cell-Based Protein Products
The production of cell-based meat requires in vitro cultivation of cells. The processes used by companies working to commercialize this technology is proprietary, but we assume it is similar to traditional muscle cell culture. In this process stem cells from a living animal or carcass would be isolated and grown through a series of phases including proliferation (multiplication of cells), differentiation (process by which cells become specialized) and finally hypertrophy (increase in size/growth).
To nurture the cells through these phases a culture media is required. Although the specific ingredients developed by companies working in this area remain unknown The Good Food Institute reported at the 2018 Reciprocal Meat Conference that growth media used in the process of cell-based meat production contains over 50 ingredients including growth factors, vitamin C precursors, sodium bicarbonate, sodium selenium, insulin, FGF-2 (fibroblast growth factor-2), TGF-β (transforming growth factor-beta), and transferrin. Traditional cell culture also requires antibiotics and antifungals to maintain cell viability.
In the Code of Federal Regulations (9 CFR 301.2) the USDA defines:
- Meat as “…part of the muscle of any cattle, sheep, swine or goats which is skeletal, or which is found in the tongue, diaphragm, heart, or esophagus …”
- Meat Food Product as “Any article capable of use as human food which is made wholly or in part from any meat or other portion of the carcass of any cattle, sheep, swine, or goats…”
- Meat byproduct as “Any part capable of use as human food, other than meat, which has been derived from one or more cattle, sheep, swine, or goats…”
It is likely that cell-based products fit within one of these established definitions, however there is an on-going debate over how these products should be labeled and represented to the consumer.
Food Safety and Labeling Regulations
Progress has been made over the last year in regard to the federal agencies that will be involved in the regulation and inspection of cell-based products. On October 24 and 25, 2018 USDA and FDA held a joint public meeting to discuss the food safety and labeling aspects of cell-based food products. Shortly after that meeting, on November 16, 2018, USDA and FDA officials agreed to joint regulation. A formal agreement outlining details of how this joint oversight would occur was released March 7, 2019. Under this shared oversight agreement FDA will regulate cell collection, cell banks, cell growth and differentiation and USDA will oversee cell harvest, production, and product labeling.
As the regulatory framework continues to develop, we expect to learn more about the processes involved in the production of cell-based protein products. At present it is unclear how closely the taste, texture and appearance of these products will mimic traditionally produced meat. The input requirements, product safety, and shelf life also remain unclear, and the palatability and consumer acceptability of these products is unknown. Clear and proper labeling of cell-based products will be critical to avoid consumer confusion. Several states, including South Dakota have passed or pending legislation prohibiting the word “meat” on labels of products derived from cell culture. As companies continue development efforts and seek pathways to commercialization of these products, many of these unknowns are expected to be addressed.
For more information, read the formal USDA-FDA agreement with respect to oversight of production of food using animal cell culture.