Lab-Grown Seafood and Lab-Grown Meat Aren’t That Different

So why might they end up with very different regulations?

A package of beef labeled "in-vitro beef-like substance" and a package of salmon labeled "lab-grown."
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Magon/iStock/Getty Images Plus, VICHAILAO/iStock/Getty Images Plus, and toguro/Wikipedia.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, two of the biggest U.S. agencies in charge of food safety, the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will host a joint public meeting on lab-grown meat, which uses cultured cells in a lab instead of a slaughtered animal to create, say, a hamburger. While this technology has long been in the works, it’s coming increasingly close to shopping-market shelves. To prepare for that, the FDA and USDA will discuss risks, regulation, and labeling for “products derived from livestock and poultry.” But this conversation may leave out something critical: lab-grown seafood.

Most of the discussion around cultured meat has focused on beef and poultry. The first major taste test, in 2013, featured a cultured meat hamburger, and high-profile investors have backed lab-grown beef and poultry producers since then. But there’s another piece of this puzzle that could be just as important in tomorrow’s grocery stores. Though sometimes neglected, lab-grown seafood is also a big part of this technological shift. Startups like Finless Foods, BlueNalu, and Wild Type have secured funding to develop products including lab-grown tuna and salmon. And failing to meaningfully address seafood in the coming FDA and USDA talks could cause the average consumer to face inconsistent or confusing labels across lab-grown seafood and other cell-cultured meats.

Cell-cultured fish or beef could be ready for sale in the next few years. In September, Scientific American listed cultured meat among the top 10 emerging technologies of 2018. Cultured meat advocates like the Good Food Institute point to many possible benefits, from being better for the environment to addressing animal welfare issues in farming.

In the meantime, the livestock and poultry industries have begun to push back against the rising tide of cultured meat and question whether it can even be called “meat,” as Rose Eveleth has written about for Slate. The technology for lab-grown meat has several proposed names, including titles without “meat” like “cultured tissue.” Ultimately, either the FDA or USDA will have to decide on what cultured meat can be called when it appears in stores. It’s not clear yet whether the USDA, the FDA, or both agencies should be in charge of figuring out how to label lab-grown meat and regulate it for safety. But the arguments for which agency has legal authority to do so all tend to focus on beef and poultry, while forgetting about seafood entirely.

The USDA regulates “meat,” defined by the Federal Meat Inspection Act as beef, pork, sheep, goat, and horse products. The USDA also gets control over poultry, like chicken and turkey, and some eggs through two other laws. But none of these laws give USDA power over seafood. The FDA instead regulates seafood and many other protein-rich foods, including game meat like venison or bison.

It only gets more complicated from there. The 2008 Farm Bill gave USDA control over catfish even though the FDA kept authority over other types of fish. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also has a voluntary inspection program for seafood, which can complement FDA’s process. Talk of using lab-grown meat techniques to make meat from extinct species could get wonky, but would probably fall on the FDA to handle.

In the end, we are left with a system where “meat” regulation is generally divided between agencies based on the type of meat in question. It gets technical fast, though, with cases like the FDA regulating shelled eggs while the USDA takes liquid and frozen eggs. Applied to lab-grown meat and fish, this legal backdrop means that the FDA will likely end up with lab-grown seafood—regardless of how responsibility gets divided between FDA and USDA over lab-grown beef, pork, and poultry. It’s probably not a mistake that the upcoming FDA/USDA joint public meeting will discuss “products derived from livestock and poultry,” with no mention of seafood.

Why should we care if different agencies handle lab-grown meat and seafood? In short, because it means cell-cultured seafood could get treated differently from lab-grown meat, with potential far-reaching effects on the American consumer.

Though it is far from certain how the two agencies will work out responsibility for lab-grown meat, the USDA seems to want a fairly active role. Some members of the traditional meat industry want USDA alone to regulate cultured meat derived from livestock and poultry and to forbid it from being labeled “meat.” Assuming USDA gets full or primary control over lab-grown meat, the FDA and USDA may develop different standards and labeling requirements for meat and seafood.

One issue could be wasted time and taxpayer dollars for two different agencies building expertise in the same technology. But the split could also have impacts on consumers, who tend to be forgotten in the administrative debate between federal agencies and industry stakeholders.

From the consumer perspective, the abstract agency divide between lab-grown meat and seafood could have real effects when buying products in the grocery store. The general consensus among experts is that the USDA appears more hostile toward cultured meat than the FDA, and this might show up in labeling requirements. While the FDA might decide to use subtler labels and allow lab-grown seafood to be called “fish,” the USDA could instead require louder or more alarming labels and might even try to prevent calling products “meat.” This could quickly get confusing for consumers, who might not understand that cell-cultured products labeled in different ways still use the same underlying technology. Seeing one label on ground beef that yells “lab-grown” in bright red letters might lead to overlooking a more subdued but still accurate label on cell-cultured tuna. Think of the headlines that could prompt: Families Being Fooled Into Buying Fish Grown in a Lab! Arguments from the GMO labeling debate could resurface or take new shape: If this was safe, wouldn’t developers want to proudly label their products? Are differences in labels preventing consumers from making informed decisions? Controversy over inconsistent labels for cultured meat and seafood could jeopardize consumer acceptance and, with it, the possible benefits of cell-cultured foods.

No matter which agencies are ultimately responsible for various types of lab-grown foods, it will be vital for consumer acceptance to not treat cell-cultured seafood much differently from lab-grown meat. Dividing up control of lab-grown foods based on the type of “meat”—rather than the technology itself—could get cultured meat closer to the market, but it won’t ensure consumers will buy products once they arrive. Instead, treating cultured meat and seafood differently could be a fast track to consumers rejecting the technology.