“It’s an issue because it’s something new.” Those words from Kevin Kester, as we talked Tuesday afternoon in sunny Orlando, Florida. Kester, the immediate past president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), was a speaker at the 2019 Bayer AgVocacy Forum, one of four people on a panel discussion titled The Future of Food: Cross-Industry Insights on Plant-Based Diets and Cellular Agriculture.
You could say Kester has a horse in the race, when it comes to the fake vs. real meat conversation. He’s a fifth-generation cattle rancher in California’s Central Coast area. His ranch sits right on top of the San Andreas fault. “We get a lot of milk shakes at the ranch,” he joked to the audience during his panel introduction. In our one-on-one interview, Kester put joking aside and explained why the issue of “fake meat” regulation is a serious one.
What is fake meat? It depends. “Fake meat” is the term sometimes used by the traditional meat industry for lab-grown culture-based proteins. It can also refer to plant-based “meat” products. There are official definitions for meat, as well.
“There are already definitions on the books at USDA under several different meat inspection acts on what defines meat products,” Kester explained. “We want those to be applied uniformly and with certainty so everybody knows what the rules are, and we can play by those rules.”
The issue at hand isn’t the veggie-burger one can find on nearly any restaurant menu these days. Rather, it’s the new technology of using animal cells to produce meat grown in a lab.
“There’s already plant-based fake meat,” Kester told me. “What we’re talking about today is lab-produced cell culture meat products that will be coming out in the United States sometime in the future.”
There are no commercial cultured meat products on the market yet. Kester said the cattle industry is keeping a close eye on what will arise in the future as these products do become available. He said “general consumers are also starting to get engaged on what’s going to be happening in the future of these products.”
One thing the cattle industry is keeping an eye on for the future of alternative meat products is regulatory authority.
“In Washington DC there’s been a big food fight, so to speak, between the Food and Drug Administration and the US Department of Agriculture about who is going to have the ultimate authority over regulatory aspects of these products when they do come out in the future from the laboratory,” he said. “So, we have a gentlemen’s agreement between the FDA and the USDA that the FDA will be responsible for pre-market analysis on ingredients and those kinds of things on any lab-produced products. The USDA will have oversight on labeling and marketing claims, which is great because under USDA rules all the pre-labeling and marketing claims have to be proven before the products even hit the market. For the daily food safety inspection processes, we want the food safety inspection service of USDA to have the oversight of the inspection services of any product coming out of the laboratory just as we do on a daily basis now with conventionally raised beef.”
Kester told me NCBA isn’t the cattle industry isn’t asking that the alternative meat industry have stronger or different regulations. Nor is the issue with the technology of lab-grown meat.
“We’re not against the technology. In fact, we promote technology at National Cattlemen. So, that’s not the issue,” he said. “The issue is we want to be on a level, even playing field with everybody going by the same rules.