By Cecilia Thai
Take a skin cell from an animal, turn it into a stem cell, and grow it into meat tissue. Sound appetizing? Maybe not, but researchers have been trying to find new ways to create meat that causes the least amount of harm to animals, and this process might just do the trick. Not only will this satisfy those who try not to eat meat to prevent animal cruelty or for environmental reasons, but this could also help aid the federal government to regulate the meat and poultry industry. However, the current federal regulations will need a makeover before it can functionally regulate these meat products.
Recently in a joint statement, the United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) and the Food & Drug Administration (“FDA”) announced that the FDA would regulate the period from collecting the skin cells to the culturing of the cells, and the USDA would regulate the cells once cells have become tissue and are ready to become meat products. The USDA largely oversees the production of meat and poultry. One of the subdivisions of the USDA, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (“FSIS”) inspects and grades meats based on certain criteria, such as its tenderness and the “amount of useable lean meat on the carcass.” These grades can be seen on the packaging of meat products in every supermarket across America. But FSIS does not have free reign to inspect and grade meat products, rather, it is bound by legislation, including the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act.
Ironically, however, FSIS and the FDA will not be able to handle these lab-grown meats. Lab-grown meats are made through a process called genetic reprogramming, where animal skin cells are altered and become induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC). Stem cells are cells within the body that have the capability of becoming almost any other kind of cell, including blood cells, fat cells, and muscle cells – all of which are present in uncooked meats. These stem cells are then induced to become the specialized cells that are present in muscle tissue. Lab-grown meats are never taken from “carcasses,” which is used in the Federal Meat Inspection Act’s definition of “meat food product.”
Although skin cells could be a “part from any meat product or other portion of the carcass,” which is also listed in the definition of a meat food product, these words are more of an afterthought to cover any residual manufacturing processes. Even the definition of “prepared” regarding the processing of meats before they hit the markets under the same act lists six other options before it merely states “or otherwise manufactured or processed.” These all-encompassing definitions are insufficient to regulate lab-grown meat. Meanwhile, the FDA is not known to regulate meat or poultry. The FDA oversees regulating stem cell therapies but has only the stem-cell product it has approved are for blood-forming cells used for patients with disorders affecting the production of blood. The FDA has expressed concerns with other stem cell treatments.
As the Mayo Clinic noted when discussing the use of stem cells in humans, “scientists don’t yet know whether using altered adult cells will cause adverse effects in humans.” Genetic reprogramming is in its infancy, and there is still a lot more research to be done on the topic. Further, although the government, with the help of scientists, could potentially regulate meat and poultry production to a cellular level, the government needs to be on top of regulating these products.
But be on the lookout. It might not be much longer until these meat products meet the shelves of supermarkets across America.
 Mayo Clinic Staff, Stem cells: What they are and what they do, Mayo Clinic (Oct. 24, 2018), archived at https://perma.cc/5BYR-QA9T.
Student Bio: Cecilia Thai is a second-year student at Suffolk University Law School and a Staffer on the Journal of High Technology Law. She graduated from Boston University with a major in Biology with a specialization in Cell Biology Molecular Biology & Genetics.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are the views of the author alone and do not represent the views of JHTL or Suffolk University Law School.