In our work programme focused on the future of food we’re interested in how we can use data and innovation in food production to address environmental concerns, meet changing consumer demands and create healthier products. As an established and innovative food producer and exporter New Zealand will always back itself in an open and competitive market setting.
Protein sources should compete on level playing field
One area we’re focused on is the development of alternative proteins and US regulatory thinking in this new domain. This has obvious implications for a large exporter of primary produce with the US likely to be the lead (and effective) global regulator in this space. It is not all viewed as downside and it is recognised that there will be opportunities that emerge in this space. Acquisitions by large traditional protein players of alternative protein start-ups is recognition of the opportunity.
“Acquisitions by large traditional protein players of alternative protein start-ups is recognition of the opportunity.”
The regulatory decisions made in the US will have an impact on our protein industries’ choices. It is important that we can, as much possible, ensure that all proteins compete on an equal basis. This includes by the accurate labelling and description of products and their origins. We always support open and competitive market settings that enable us as an innovative food producer and exporter to compete on an even footing.
Regulatory certainty required for growing alternative proteins sector
In the US alone billions of dollars have poured into the emerging alternative proteins sector, there is an active start-up scene, already a number of notable acquisitions, and growing market and consumer interest. The sector has fairly been asking for greater regulatory certainty to allow for further investment, development of technologies and the industry.
“The sector has fairly been asking for greater regulatory certainty to allow for further investment, development of technologies and the industry.”
This certainty had been delayed as the responsible US regulatory agencies – the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – fought over regulatory control. Cell-cultured start-ups advocated for USDA regulation for a number of reasons, including wanting consumers to accept the product as being as close to conventional meat as possible.
In a relatively short time frame the USDA and FDA have established an inter-agency framework for regulating food items produced using cellular agriculture methods of meat and poultry production. Details are still to be worked through but it comprises a formal agreement between the agencies with the USDA overseeing food processing, labelling, and distribution while the FDA will oversee inspections and safety checks.
Labelling remains unresolved issue
While it is positive to have some certainty over agency arrangements one of the key issues and the subject of a number of US legal battles remains unresolved. This has involved the status of cell-cultured meat – namely, can it be called meat. Some beef producing states, such as Missouri, have passed legislation requiring food companies to make it clear if meat was sourced from an animal or not. Nebraska, Virginia, and Tennessee are debating similar proposals.
“Some beef producing states, such as Missouri, have passed legislation requiring food companies to make it clear if meat was sourced from an animal or not. Nebraska, Virginia, and Tennessee are debating similar proposals.”
If the USDA and FDA create a formal labelling rule for cell-cultured meat, they’ll have to develop regulations to be circulated for public comment before being finalised. This would be hard fought, contentious and I would expect a long process. Any existing state-based laws would be overturned based on the federal agency’s superior jurisdiction.
In the labelling battle is recognition that gaining consumer acceptance is a difficult and critical step in the commercialisation of cell-cultured meat products. Being able to use a name or label for a product which is understood and trusted and in which there is inbuilt tradition and legacy is valuable and provides a huge advantage. The US beef industry says sure consumers should have choice but it must be based on accurate and non-misleading information.
“In the labelling battle is recognition that gaining consumer acceptance is a difficult and critical step in the commercialisation of cell-cultured meat products.”
Equally it important that the claims by any products should be accurate and non-misleading. It is expected that cell-cultured meat companies will in their branding and marketing focus on the slaughter practices and environmental challenges of traditional farming. Plant-based protein companies like Impossible Foods already suggest that consuming their products will save the Earth.
The science must back up the claims. For example, the jury is still out on whether cell-cultured meat offers the environmental benefits that these companies promise. A group of researchers at Oxford University released a study early this year indicating that mass-scale cell-cultured meat production could have equal if not worse environmental impacts compared to conventional meat production. This largely depended on the nature of the available energy source for the manufacturing processes involved in cell-cultured production.
“A group of researchers at Oxford University released a study early this year indicating that mass-scale cell-cultured meat production could have equal if not worse environmental impacts compared to conventional meat production.”
This is only one study and it will have its limitations. The point is that claimed environmental credentials should always be tested just as they are for traditional protein sources.
This post supports the development of the alternative proteins and recognises the huge potential that will come from these innovations to address environmental concerns, meet changing consumer demands, create healthier products and transform the traditional protein sector.
However, this should be delivered within open and competitive market settings that ultimately encourage ongoing innovation driven by informed consumer choice.