In a comment to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) urging it to reject the USCA petition, the Good Food Institute, Tofurky, Lightlife Foods, Field Roast Grain Meat Co, Impossible Foods, Finless Foods, Sweet Earth Foods, and Hungry Planet, argue that USDA is authorized to regulate meat labels to protect the health and welfare of consumers.
It is not, however, authorized to “prop up an industry or favor one production method over another," add the commentators, who argue that "Courts have affirmed that benefit to consumers, rather than economic protectionism, is the animating purpose of the labeling provisions of the The Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA).
"First Amendment jurisprudence makes clear that if the government were to restrict corporate speech to acquiesce to the Cattlemen’s petition (which must be the true aim of the petition, given that the allegedly objectionable labels are permissible under existing law), such restriction would need to further a legitimate and substantial government purpose. Privileging one sector of an industry over another does not qualify.”
With respect to plant-based meats, this is in any case moot, they argue, as USDA has no jurisdiction over plant-based products, regardless of how they are labeled: “Plant-based food products fall instead under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).”
They also observe that when questioned over plant-based meat labeling in a 2016 email exchange cited in an attachment to its comment (p21), the FDA made it clear that truthful and accurate labeling that does not mislead consumers is the priority.
Responding to an email from an FSIS official querying the labeling of Sweet Earth’s plant-based ‘Benevolent Bacon,' the FDA official said: “While the PDP [principal display panel] states ‘Benevolent Bacon,’ this is asterisked to another statement on the PDP that states ‘Vegan, Plant Based Substitute for Pork Bacon.’ The PDP also states ‘Plant‐Based.’
“FDA reviews labels as a whole. Without any evidence (such as consumer studies) to demonstrate that consumers would be misled, we would likely not object to the use of certain terms like ‘bacon’ if they are appropriately qualified or if the label otherwise clearly and accurately discloses the nature of the product.”
Such labels — which contain qualifiers or otherwise clearly disclose the nature of the product — are “entirely truthful and do not violate the labeling requirements of the FDCA or the FMIA,” claimed the GFI.
It also noted that USDA has permitted labels such as ‘Turkey Ham’ with the qualifier ‘Cured Turkey Thigh Meat’ because the products resemble ham in taste and appearance and consumers are told that they are made from turkey, not pork.
Asked about USDA's jurisdiction in relation to plant-based meats, Rebecca Cross, an attorney formerly with Davis, Wright, Tremaine LLP and now with Outermost House, an incubator for plant-based and cell-cultured food companies launching later this year, told FoodNavigator-USA:
"I don't see any plausible basis for USDA jurisdiction over plant-based meat products, even if they were purporting to be animal-based meat products. The law that grants the USDA authority over meat products, the Federal Meat Inspection Act, only provides that jurisdiction where a product contains at least some animal parts.
"The agency otherwise has no authority to inspect or detain products or to declare them misbranded. In fact, there is a USDA directive prohibiting their inspectors from taking action against plant-based products if they happen to see them in a dual jurisdiction facility."
The meat industry is evolving
As for cultured meat, it’s just another method of producing meat in an industry that has evolved significantly over the past 100 years, added the GFI: “Methods of cattle production today would have been unthinkable to our great grandparents.
“Traditionally, beef cattle grazed on open plains until slaughter, and bulls bred with cows. Now nearly all cattle spend a significant portion of their lives on feedlots, consuming grain instead of grass, and in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer are commercially available. If USDA were to limit meat and beef terms to the flesh of cattle born, raised, and killed in ‘the traditional manner,’ almost no meat on the market today could bear such labels.”
Does ‘meat’ require slaughter?
Even where dictionary definitions of meat refer to animal flesh (some refer to the ‘edible parts of fruits, nuts or eggs’), they do not always reference ‘slaughter,’ meanwhile, observed the GFI.
“Given that many dictionary definitions of ‘beef’ as well as USDA’s own definition for the term do not mention slaughter and that many Americans are interested in meat without slaughter, USDA should not mandate that traditional slaughter is an essential part of what makes beef ‘beef.’”
It concluded: “If USDA feels compelled to act at all, the most reasonable course would be to coordinate with FDA on formalizing the existing practice of allowing the use of compound names, consistent with GFI’s citizen petition [eg. almond milk, peanut butter].”
"The labels of 'beef' or 'meat' should inform consumers that the product is derived naturally from animals as opposed to alternative proteins such as plants and insects or artificially grown in a laboratory. Alternative products such as those described above should thus not be permitted to be labeled as 'beef,' which is widely understood by consumers to be the flesh of a bovine animal, such as cattle, harvested for use as food, or as 'meat,' which is understood to be derived from animal tissue or flesh for use as food."
The US Cattlemen's Association
What’s in a name?
As to what language cultured meat brands are using in PR materials, there has been a concerted and co-ordinated effort by the Good Food Institute and the main players in the space to popularize the term ‘clean meat,’ although critics of the technology typically use less consumer-friendly terms such as ‘synthetic,’ 'lab-grown’ and 'invitro.’
The term 'clean' meat – coined both because the meat is cultured in a sterile environment, and because it has a lower environmental footprint, like 'clean energy' – has had some push-back (given the tacit implication that the regular variety is 'dirty) but has become more widely used in the media over the past year.
"The leaders of the national and global meat industry want to feed the world animal protein in a sustainable way. That’s a shared interest that should be celebrated. And, to that end, rather than piling on with paperwork, I call upon the USDA and FDA to convene a series of sessions where we can meaningfully talk about the future of food production together."
Josh Tetrick, cofounder and CEO, JUST