Animal Rights, Sustainability

Reflection on the Recent Administrative Actions Around Cell-Cultivated Meats and The Public Reaction

Alexandria Winters (she/her), Class of ‘25

An estimated 99% of farmed animals in the United States are living in factory farms, and 70% of the world’s meat comes from these sources. Our society has become dependent on this form of food production, but it poses many environmental risks. For example, cattle farming both exacerbates the effects of climate change, and suffers the consequences itself, as methane production contributes to the effects of climate change, and those effects, in turn, lead to higher water needs in the industry.

Factory farming not only requires use of large amounts of our natural resources, but also contributes to costly rising pollution levels. The costs of cleaning soil under the United States’ pig and dairy industry is estimated to be $4.1 billion. Global needs for animal feed, mainly in soy, have necessitated major agricultural expansion which has contributed to deforestation. In South America, approximately 50% of Cerrado’s forests have been cleared for this purpose.

Historically, the solution to the factory farming issue has been to recommend less consumption of animal products. Today, lab grown meat is a new solution that shows promise and may be implementable on a wider scale. A study from the University of Oxford found that lab grown beef has the potential to cut down greenhouse gas emissions by 96%, compared to conventionally grown meat.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates human made food from cell cultures alongside the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS); the jurisdiction over this type of food product extends from the agencies’ existing jurisdiction over food product from the same species. For these cell-cultured foods, the FDA regulates the cell collection, banking, growth, and differentiation, and USDA-FSIS transitions into regulatory authority at the point of harvest. The FDA and the USDA have recently approved cell grown meat, specifically poultry, for human consumption. The approval from the FDA means that the administration has decided that the poultry grown in a lab does not differ from farmed chicken at a cellular level. In June of 2023, there was a stir in the news cycle about the FDA approving this cell-cultivated meat product, which was met with skepticism from the public. While the reporting of the event did make many people believe that it meant that cell-cultivated meat would soon be appearing on all shelves across the nation and that consumers would not receive notice about the proteins’ source, the impact is much more limited for now. Two American manufacturers have received “no questions” letters from the FDA and have plans to move forward with selling the meat in restaurants, where they will give consumers the opportunity to be “some of the first to try” the meat.

While these administrative actions are opening the possibility of lab grown meat becoming a major player in the meat industry, they will likely need to overcome the hurdle of
public mistrust of movement away from “natural” food. This point of contention is reminiscent of the public’s similar apprehension about genetically modified organisms in the conversation of agriculture. As of 2018, the Department of Agriculture’s data showed that 90% of U.S. corn, cotton, and soybean acreage was planted with genetically engineered seeds. If this pattern is any indication of how the public discomfort with artifice in the food supply will affect the degree to which it is implemented, then lab grown meat may have little difficulty overtaking the long dominant factory farm industry in the years to come.