Select U.S. restaurants have begun serving laboratory-grown chicken, spurring long wait times for reservations by diners curious to taste it.
In June, the U.S. Department of Agriculture gave final approval for a few California-based companies to begin selling lab-produced chicken across the country.
While it may be years before lab-grown meat is available at grocery stores, a handful of states are tightening rules on labeling the new food, which is produced by growing cells acquired from living animals into muscle tissue.
Consumers interested in sustainable foods that avoid the slaughter of animals are driving the growing industry. But, pushed by the cattle and poultry industries, more states are defining what can be sold to consumers as “meat” and are requiring prominent labels on products cultured in labs.
Under a USDA agreement, UPSIDE Foods and GOOD Meat, as well as the latter’s manufacturing partner JOINN Biologics, will sell their products with the label “cell-cultivated chicken,” while the department develops further labeling rules.
But some states are imposing their own additional requirements.
Texas passed the most recent bill, signed into law by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in May. Starting Sept. 1, cultivated products in Texas must include the term “cell-cultured,” “lab-grown” or similar wording on packaging near the name of the product, in type at least the same size as the text around it.
The Texas Farm Bureau, an advocacy group of farmers and ranchers, had listed the bill as one of its legislative priorities this year.
Such products marketed in Missouri as meat without the words “plant-based,” “veggie,” “lab-grown,” “lab-created” or a similar phrase before or after the product’s name may be referred to a county prosecutor and the attorney general for potential violations, according to a memorandum from the state. The products also must state that they are “made from plants,” “grown in a lab” or a comparable disclosure.
Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota and Wyoming enacted similar legislation the following year.
In 2020, Oklahoma enacted a law giving state officials the authority to enforce meat labeling practices.
This year, Iowa considered a bill to prohibit lab-grown proteins in public schools, but it didn’t pass. A Michigan labeling measure remains in committee.
Kentucky’s 2019 law deems a food misbranded if it is labeled as meat but contains cultured animal tissue.
The cattle industry in Kentucky is extremely important to the economy, said state Rep. Michael Meredith, a Republican who sponsored the measure. People are interested in knowing about the origin and makeup of their food now more than ever before, he said, and legislators wanted to ensure labels are clear.
“I think the public is very skeptical of the product,” Meredith said. “I have talked with people — and I come from a fairly rural area — and folks are just appalled, and it’s not even funny.”
He added, “I think it’s going be really, really hard to push something like this in rural America as a market.”
But the cell-cultured meat industry has made significant strides in recent years. As of 2022, the global number of cultivated meat companies rose to 156, with headquarters in 26 countries, according to the Good Food Institute’s State of the Industry report. The nonprofit, which advocates in favor of protein alternatives and prefers the term “cultivated” meat, found that all-time investments in the industry had reached $2.8 billion globally last year.
Consumer choice rather than label censorship should determine winners and losers in the marketplace.
– Laura Braden, associate director of regulatory affairs and an attorney for the Good Food Institute
The institute argues that U.S. state legislatures are taking steps to undermine the market through “label censorship,” which it calls unconstitutional and unnecessary.
“It’s always been our position that state label censorship through legislative efforts were kind of a ‘solution in search of a problem,’” said Laura Braden, associate director of regulatory affairs and an attorney at the Good Food Institute. “Consumer choice rather than label censorship should determine winners and losers in the marketplace.”
Still, legislators in states such as Wyoming, where the law requires labels on lab-grown meat to include “containing cell cultured product” or similar wording, say they want labels clearly understood by the public.
“It never hurts to have our Department of Agriculture, doing this work alongside the USDA,” Wyoming Republican state Sen. Brian Boner said. “We’re just going to have a more robust system where folks will know exactly what they’re purchasing when it comes to meat products.”
But such measures have met resistance.
The Missouri law prompted a lawsuit arguing the state made “a brazen attempt to stifle the growing grocery category of plant-based meats,” according to a statement from the ACLU of Missouri, which is part of the lawsuit. Including the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the Good Food Institute and Tofurky, a plant-based protein company, a coalition of organizations challenged the law for violating the First Amendment.
“I don’t think this was about consumer confusion,” said Amanda Howell, a managing attorney at Animal Legal Defense Fund. “I don’t think this is about ensuring clear and non-misleading labels. I think this was about taking First Amendment rights away from companies and making them call themselves things that you know would be unintelligible to consumers. And if a consumer can’t tell what a product is, they’re not going to buy it.”
Howell said states are acting now because they sense the growing market possibilities.
“These are very animal agriculture-heavy states, their GDP relies on those animal producers, and they feel beholden to their constituents to pass these laws designed to attack plant and cell-cultured meats.”
Mike Badger, executive director of the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association, said poultry producers have long been expecting the approval of cell-cultivated chicken.
The association represents independent farms that market directly to consumers, unlike poultry giants like Tyson Foods, which has been investing in lab-grown meat companies for a few years. While the traditional poultry farm community isn’t overly concerned about the possibility of competition, Badger said, there are still ethical concerns for consumers choosing cell-cultivated chicken.
“I think the really big question here is this: What’s driving the demand to create this new lab-grown protein?” Badger asked. “Is it only the fact that people think it’s more ethical than having a living chicken that dies for your table? And if that’s the case, how are the ethics of all the other stuff coming into it?”
Backers of cultivated meat argue it is better for the environment. Traditional meat is one of the top contributors to the average U.S. household’s carbon footprint, according to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In 2019, a sizable portion of the Earth’s greenhouse gas emissions came from the global agriculture industry.
A 2021 article by university researchers in India published in the Journal of Animal Science and Technology suggests lab-grown meat could fulfill the increasing demand for meat using fewer natural resources.
But Badger cited an April preprint by researchers at the University of California, Davis that found lab-grown meat’s environmental impact could be higher than retail beef based on current production methods.
“It’s very early in the whole process,” Badger said, “and there’s a lot of questions to be sorted out.”
This report was first published by Stateline.