Milk producers weigh into cultivated meat labeling debate: ‘The lexicon must incorporate the considerations of diverse companies in this space…’

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Industry pioneer UPSIDE Foods​​ has historically used 'cell-based' and 'cell-cultured,' but now believes 'cultivated' is the best term. Image credit: UPSIDE Foods
Industry pioneer UPSIDE Foods​​ has historically used 'cell-based' and 'cell-cultured,' but now believes 'cultivated' is the best term. Image credit: UPSIDE Foods

Related tags: cell-cultured meat, cell-based meat, cultivated meat

While at first glance, milk producers might not appear to have any skin in the game in the debate over how to describe meat, poultry, and seafood grown in bioreactors, labeling decisions made by regulators could have broader ramifications beyond the meat industry, argue dairy industry stakeholders.

Multiple terms have been bandied around over the years, from ‘lab-grown’ (a media favorite) to ‘fake’ or ‘synthetic’ (favored by some cattle producers) to ‘clean’ (popularized by the GFI) to ‘slaughter-free’ (favored by some animal-welfare groups), but most startups in the nascent space have since coalesced around the terms ‘cultivated,’ ‘cell-cultured,’ or ‘cell-based.’ 

NMPF: ‘If FSIS permits the use of the word ‘cultured,’ even with a modifier such as ‘cell,’ consumers may be misled’

In public comments responding to the USDA’s advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR)​​ however, the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) expressed strong reservations about using ‘cultured’ or ‘cell-cultured’  to describe meat grown from animal cells.

The NMPF - which favors the somewhat loaded terms ‘lab-grown’ and ‘synthetic’ for these products - added: “The term ‘cultured dairy’ is a recognized food category that is considered to include fluid milks, yogurt, skyr, sour cream, cottage, cream cheese and kefir.

“It is absolutely necessary to distinguish lab-grown products from normal products, but if FSIS permits the use of the word ‘cultured,’ even with a modifier such as ‘cell,’ consumers may be misled and the demand for conventional food products that already use the word ‘cultured’ or ‘culture’ in an entirely different sense – including dairy products – may be adversely affected.”

BIOMILQ: ‘Cell-cultured’ is the most accurate term to describe our production process 

In a comment highlighting the complexity of the issue, however, North Carolina-based BIOMILQ - a startup making human milk in bioreactors by culturing mammary epithelial cells that lactate - argued that ‘cell-cultured’ is the most accurate term to describe the production process,”​ it deploys.

Meanwhile, 'cultivated' - the term now favored by most key players in the nascent cell-cultured meat industry - is not a good descriptor for BIOMILQ’S product or appropriate for the broader category of emerging cellularly synthesized products,” ​it claimed.

“‘Cultivated’, in our opinion, evokes 'farm land, pastures, growing crops', which misleads consumers and mystifies the process, rather than communicating about the production method… attempting to use ‘cultivator’ to describe bioreactors or fermentation tanks is truly confusing to us.”

'BIOMILQ’s work nuances the cellular agriculture space, which is quickly becoming much more than just cell-based meat'

'Cell-based,' in turn, is not a very accurate term to describe BIOMILQ’s product (ie. milk), which is produced by cells (the mammary cells are not themselves the product), said the firm.

“BIOMILQ’s work nuances the cellular agriculture space, which is quickly becoming much more than just cell-based meat… this lexicon must incorporate the considerations of diverse companies in this space, not just those with a louder voice.” 

Matric F.T. ‘Culturing is frequently associated with growing microorganisms, whereas cell cultivated meat does not actually use microorganisms’

Matrix Meats (now known as Matrix F.T.), which makes scaffolding for cell-cultured/cultivated meat, takes issue with the term ‘cultured’ for different reasons, arguing that it “may be confusing… because culturing is frequently associated with growing microorganisms, whereas cell cultivated meat does not actually use microorganisms.”

CSPI: Consumers ‘may not understand how a cultivated meat product is distinct from a traditional meat product, nor would it be conveyed by the term’

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and Consumer Federation of America, meanwhile, take issue with ‘cultivated’ and ‘cultured,’ as neither “appropriately convey for consumers how the products were produced.”

Many consumers “may not understand how a cultivated meat product is distinct from a traditional meat product, nor would it be conveyed by the term,​ noted the CSPI.

Meanwhile, it added, “the term ‘cultured,’ when used alone, is confusing because it does not include what was cultured to produce the meat and could not reasonably be inferred to refer to cell culture technology, especially by consumers who are not even aware that this new technology exists.”

More research is likely needed, said the CSPI, but “there is evidence to support both ‘cell-cultured’ and ‘cell-based’ as terms that would inform consumers of material facts and not be misleading.”

Tyson Foods: Would support ‘cell-cultured’ or ‘cell-cultivated’

Meat giant Tyson Foods - which has invested in cell-cultured meat startups UPSIDE Foods and Future Meat Technologies  - said it “would support the use of a distinguishing descriptor such as ‘cell cultured’ or ‘cell cultivated,’​ while the North American Meat Institute does not favor a particular term, but stressed that it should be backed by consumer research and should not be misleading or disparage traditional meat and poultry products.”

  • Read all the public comments HERE​.
  • Read more HERE​ about the views of some key stakeholders including the GFI, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), ASPCA, Animal Welfare Institute, The Humane League, The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, UPSIDE Foods and BlueNalu.  

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