Comment: Farm Bureau works to shape tomorrow’s food system


Issue Date: March 20, 2019
By Corinne Madison
Corinne Madison
Farm Bureau members who raise livestock say they have a number of concerns about marketing of lab-grown meat, including questions about product labeling, market share, consumer education and food safety.
Photo/Ching Lee

Whenever I discuss synthetic foods with someone, reruns of the animated TV show The Jetsons play in my head. I think back to scenes of Mrs. Jetson preparing food for her family: She simply pushes a button on her "space age" oven and almost instantaneously has whatever food her family wants. It's fast, customizable and seemingly effortless. But for those of us who understand how food is produced, it leaves us with one question: how?

We as a society are entering into uncharted territory of food, and we seem to have conflicting mindsets on what the future of food should look like. On one hand, there is the local movement, where people want to know where their food comes from and how it's produced. On the other hand, we have companies investing millions of dollars in technology to produce synthetic "meat" in labs.

For those who are unaware: Yes, growing food that resembles a hamburger patty or a chicken nugget in a lab is real. After extracting stem cells from an animal fetus, scientists grow those stem cells in petri dishes, feeding them energy sources and antibiotics. After the product has grown to a certain size, it is transferred into a larger vat, similar to a tank used to ferment beer, where it continues to be fed and grown until ready for "harvest."

As if that wasn't sci-fi-ey enough, there are multiple companies investing in this technology. At a joint meeting I attended last October, hosted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, at least four different entities that are producing lab-grown beef, chicken, seafood and pork-based foods gave comments. Though their products might not seem appetizing to you, these companies have raised millions of dollars from venture capitalists and donors in a short amount of time. Bill Gates, Tyson Foods and Cargill are among the investors.

The products aren't on the market for people to buy yet, but some companies project they will be market-ready as early as 2020. Seeing that these companies aren't slowing down anytime soon, creating a regulatory framework to govern these products is an imminent priority. Remember when I said we are in uncharted territory?

The first step was to decide which federal agency would have jurisdiction over food products derived from animal tissue cells. Ultimately, the USDA and FDA came together and released a formal overview of how the two agencies plan to regulate the products.

In essence, FDA will oversee the cell collection and development of cell banks. During the harvest phase, jurisdiction will transfer from FDA to USDA, which will regulate the processing, packaging and labeling of the products.

The components USDA oversees are important areas for the agricultural community to weigh in on: How should these products be labeled? Or rather, how should these products not be labeled? Is there a standard of identity that needs to be created? Some companies consider their product to be more environmentally friendly. Is this true? Should those claims be regulated also?

As you can tell, there are many unanswered questions surrounding food products derived from animal cell tissue. Now is the time for Farm Bureau members to collaborate with one another and make their voices heard. Agriculture rarely has the opportunity to be proactive on issues and we need to make room at the table for ourselves to join this conversation.

If you're familiar with Farm Bureau, you know we have policy books with extensive detail about our positions on certain issues. Our policy on cell-cultured products derived from animal tissue is still developing, so CFBF conducted a survey last year to gauge our members' interest in the issue. A total of 98 members responded who raise livestock including beef cattle, dairy cattle, lambs, poultry, sheep, swine and goats. Of the 98 respondents, an overwhelming majority—95 percent—responded they are concerned about this issue. Top worries about the product included consumer education/awareness, product labeling, loss of market share and food safety concerns.

Respondents also had the option throughout the survey to provide additional thoughts. Concerns over traceability, hormone usage and response time for product recalls were examples of issues raised. Many comments emphasized the need for clear and truthful labeling.

The Jetsons first aired in 1962 and was set in 2062. That puts us almost directly halfway in the program's 100-year prediction of the future. Although I would very much enjoy if the Jetsons' traffic-free highway system became a reality, I do not want the same for our food system.

We can't sit back and let others decide what the next 50 years should look like. Renew your Farm Bureau membership and get involved with your county Farm Bureau. You can also stay up to date by keeping an eye out for Farm Team alerts and other opportunities to share your views as the regulatory process for lab-grown foods continues. Issues like this aren't going away—it's up to you to make your voice heard.

(Corinne Madison is a legislative analyst in the California Farm Bureau Federation Federal Policy Department. She may be contacted at cmadison@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.