The Shortsighted Effort to Ban Cell-Cultivated Meat in Some States

Cell-cultivated meat—meat grown from animal cells rather than taken from slaughtered animals—seems to be the hottest topic in food right now. Everyone from veteran chefs to tech moguls seem eager to get involved. Lawmakers in a growing number of states, however, aren’t quite as jazzed about it. 

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At the end of January, Florida’s House and the Senate Agriculture Committee approved a bill introduced by Republican Rep. Danny Alvarez that would not only ban the production and sale of cell-cultivated meat, but would make it a second-degree misdemeanor. If the bill is passed by the state Senate, effective this summer the culinary crime would be punishable with a fine of up to $1,000, plus suspension or closure of the restaurant, store, or other business in question. Similarly, Arizona Republican Rep. David Marshall proposed a bill on Jan. 16  banning the sale of cell-cultivated meat. The bill would also allow Arizona business owners to sue cell-cultivated meat companies for damages to their profits. 

Other politicians are taking a less direct approach. Rather than banning the sale of cell-cultivated meat altogether, they’re disingenuously throwing obstacles in its way however they can. One tactic is to focus on labeling terminology under the guise of consumer protection.

Read more: The Case for Lab-Grown Meat

The USDA already approved two product labels that use “cell-cultivated” on June 21, 2023. Nevertheless, in recent months a handful of bills have emerged, attempting to restrict how this new food technology is labeled. One such bill was introduced in Nebraska last November and another was signed into law last September in Texas. And last month a panel within the Arizona state House of Representatives voted to approve a bill that would severely restrict the terminology cell-cultivated products can use in their labeling. Rep. Quang Nguyen’s (R-Ariz.) bill would disallow brands from describing cell-based products using any term that is “the same as or deceptively similar to a term that has been used or defined historically in reference to a specific meat food product or poultry product.”

The ostensible purpose of the bill, according to Nguyen, is consumer protection and transparency. He claims that he is not trying to hamper the sale of cell-cultivated meat. But intentional or not, the legislation creates an obvious hurdle for the industry. If it passes the state House, cell-cultivated meat brands selling in Arizona could be barred from labeling their products not just with words like “meat,” “poultry,” or “chicken” (even with the “cell-cultivated” qualifier), but possibly even with terms like “burger” or “nugget,” which refer more to the shape or composition of a dish than its ingredients. One can’t help but wonder exactly what terminology these Arizona Republicans would find acceptable. “Cell-cultivated sandwich disk,” maybe? Or perhaps, “cell-cultivated tubes and slabs”?

The politicians behind these sorts of preemptive measures, however, are betraying a number of American—and especially Republican—values. 

For one thing, the labeling laws are, arguably, methods of arresting free speech. They don’t actually protect consumers from dangerous or even misunderstood products, they just make a whole category of demonstrably safe food a little harder to sell. Attempts to flat-out ban cell-cultivated meat are even worse, taking away consumers’ rights to use their own judgement and freedom of choice in deciding how to feed their families. 

And for what reason? There have been no red flags about the healthiness of cell-cultivated meat for humans, despite what some public disinformation campaigns may have you believe. And American consumers are not as easily baffled as some of our representatives seem to think. We generally understand, for example, that peanut butter doesn’t contain butter and that ladyfingers are not actual human digits—this is one arena where people really don’t need government hand-holding to figure things out.

Read more: We Tasted The World’s First Cultivated Steak, No Cows Required

It’s hard to believe that these measures are really designed for “consumer protection,” especially when so many of the people supporting the legislation have expressed their actual motivation: money, and in the pockets of a select few. One Arizona Republican explicitly stated that his desire is to “protect” the cattle ranching industry; another Arizona representative is a cattle rancher himself. It doesn’t take a detective to realize that defending the status quo is really what it’s all about.

But interfering with the rise of cell-cultivated meat is almost certainly a bad economic decision in the long run. The idea of the government deciding to privilege one industry over another should already be abhorrent to free market Republicans on principle. Anyone who believes in capitalism should theoretically bristle at the thought of the government overriding the laws of supply and demand. If it’s a bad product for whatever reason, the people won’t want it and it will fail anyway, so the logic goes. If “real” beef is truly all-around better, what does the cattle industry have to fear? 

The states expressing hostility toward cell-cultivated meat are just limiting their own opportunities for economic growth. By all appearances, cell-cultivated meat will continue to grow in popular interest, and an innovation gap is going to develop between the states that support progress and those that reject it. 

Meanwhile, other countries like Israel, Singapore, and China are actively funding or otherwise supporting the development of cell-cultivated meat, perhaps out of recognition that factory farming—how 99% of meat is produced in the U.S.—is a nasty business. It’s responsible for 15% of greenhouse gas emissions; it produces antibiotic-resistant bacteria and zoonotic diseases; and it is unkind to animals, to say the least. Cell-cultivated meat sidesteps all these issues. If we seriously want America to continue to be a nation that leads in technology and innovation, we can’t continue draconically resisting change while other countries forge ahead. Even some of the world’s biggest meat conglomerates are developing cell-cultivated meat.

By refusing to change with the times, politicians may be helping local cattle ranchers in the short term, but in the long run their state may become economically stymied. At the end of the day, falling behind technologically is an unstrategic, reactionary response to the threat of something new and unfamiliar entering the world. It’s a betrayal of their own values, and they’re not doing the residents of their states any favors—they’re just hindering American progress.

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