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On June 23 at 4 p.m. EST, Chase Purdy will discuss his new book, Billion Dollar Burger: Inside Big Tech’s Race for the Future of Food, in an online event with Christopher Leonard, author of The Meat Racket and Kochland. To learn more and RSVP, visit the New America website.
COVID-19 is the latest reminder that the U.S. meat supply chain needs to change. It isn’t transparent, it isn’t safe for workers, and its biggest weakness, revealed during the pandemic, is the way a handful of companies have structured the now highly consolidated industry.
Cell-cultured meat could answer all these of problems.
Produced in a sterile environment, cultured meat is real meat that’s made by growing cells from cows, pigs, and chickens into fat and muscle tissue. It offers the promise of real meat with none of the drawbacks: No animals are slaughtered, the process causes a small fraction of the environmental degradation inflicted by the current system, and no employees are tasked with the dangerous job of ripping apart carcasses and packaging meat for sale in tight quarters. After years of research and development, simple meat items are now being produced and are close to being ready for the market, items such as meatballs, chicken tenders, duck chorizo, and foie gras.
There’s just one problem: red tape. The reason simple cell-cultured meats aren’t already on the market has little to do with science and technology and everything to do with government regulators.
Even as cell-cultured meat companies—many of them American—break ground on their pilot production facilities, the U.S. government response lags far behind the technical innovation. It’s been more than a year since, after much squabbling with the meat lobby, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration signed an agreement laying out how the two would cooperate to jointly regulate cultured meat production. But still not enough has happened since then to build the regulatory pathway necessary to get this new product to market, despite its potential. Part of the problem is bureaucratic slowness as the government collects and analyzes data that companies are providing around the quality and safety of their production processes.
“It’s really an important development in the production of food,” said Steve Morris, a natural resources and environment director with the Government Accountability Office, in an April 2020 report. “We think FDA and USDA could benefit from greater collaboration on things like clarifying specific roles and responsibilities.”
That both agencies are moving slowly to establish a regulatory pathway is bad for leading homegrown startups such as Finless Foods, Memphis Meats, Just, and Mission Barns. It also raises the question: Wouldn’t it be advantageous for the U.S. government to shift some of its focus from reopening meatpacking plants to finishing laying out the regulatory framework for cultured meat?
The world is edging ever closer to the moment when basic cultured meat products will become available commercially, and it’s increasingly obvious that it will likely happen in Singapore, China, or Israel, all countries with growing tech industries and recent memories of food security issues, before it happens in the U.S.
That’s bad news for anyone hoping the U.S. will take a leading role in stymying the negative impacts of animal agriculture on the changing climate. The sector accounts for about 14 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.
Of course, eating always has been—and always will be—a fundamentally political act. And in America, where lobbying battles have long raged over what you can call “milk,” “mayonnaise,” “butter,” and “meat,” petty food fights historically gum up progress. But the difference today is that consumers are witnessing in real time a conflation of issues that could be a boon for high-tech meat. COVID-19 has created a convergence of problems for the meat industry and a perfect opportunity for cultured meat. As of early June, there were at least 20,400 cases of COVID-19 infections across 216 plants in 33 states, according to the nonprofit newsroom Investigate Midwest. The biggest U.S. meat companies have had to shut down whole factories because of the virus. In April, those shutdowns decreased the slaughtering of beef cattle and hogs for meat by 36 percent and 37 percent respectively, according to USDA data. That, in turn, led to higher meat prices in many grocery stores, even as farmers were forced to kill and dispose of millions of animals.
Now is the time for the USDA and FDA to come together in an act of global leadership to bring cultured meat and all its benefits to consumers and the country. But in order to truly move the needle on the agricultural industry’s environmental—and moral—impact, we need to act decisively. It’s definitely not too late. The United States can still win the edible space race to bring cell-cultured meat to market.
It has every reason to try.
By Chase Purdy. Portfolio.