Lab-Grown Meat Raises Regulatory Questions

Who decides whether meat developed in a laboratory is safe to eat and, if it is, how it can be marketed?

That’s the question regulators face as scientists develop new meats grown from animal cells. This cell-culture technology, developers say, is a way to make burger patties without slaughtering bovines, and chicken strips without ruffling a feather.

Cell-cultured meats are likely still years away from appearing in supermarkets and restaurants. But a clear regulatory framework is crucial for startups like Memphis Meats Inc., Mosa Meat and Finless Foods Inc. to avoid any costly missteps during development.

“The biggest challenge for any new technology is regulatory uncertainty,” says Brian Sylvester, special counsel with Wiley Rein LLP, who previously worked as a regulatory lawyer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He isn’t currently representing any meat companies, but he has been discussing representation of the cell-culture startups.

Some startups believe the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates cell-culture technology in pharmaceuticals, would look more favorably on their technology than the USDA, which oversees the network of slaughterhouses and processing plants that produce meat the traditional way. Cattlemen and hog and poultry farmers want the new meats to be regulated by the USDA, which they say would ensure a level playing field.

The regulators are trying to work this out between themselves.

Labels matter

Cell-cultured meat companies isolate livestock, poultry or fish cells that have the capacity to renew themselves in a laboratory. The cells are placed inside bioreactor tanks similar to fermenters, where they are fed oxygen and nutrients. Within a few weeks, they grow into muscle that can be prepared and eaten just like traditional meat.

This new technology is shaking up the $200 billion U.S. meat market. Meat processors Cargill Inc. and Tyson Foods Inc. TSN +1.40% have invested in developers of cell-cultured meats, along with Bill Gates and Richard Branson. Livestock producers, meanwhile, are pushing lawmakers and regulators to investigate whether these products are safe and asking that they be clearly labeled as something other than conventionally raised meat.

Photo: Jason Henry for The Wall Street Journal