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North Dakota stockmen take stand on 'lab-grown' meat labeling

BISMARCK — Within the next year, "cultured" meat — made from animal muscle and fat cells in a lab rather than coming from slaughtered livestock — could hit the market and the beef industry is expressing concern over how that product is marketed to consumers.

At its annual meeting in Bismarck last week, the North Dakota Stockmen's Association approved a policy initiative aimed at guarding against deceptive labeling.

Julie Ellingson, the North Dakota Stockmen's Association's executive director, said North Dakota beef producers aren't opposed to competing with "lab-grown meat," but they want to ensure it is labeled as such when it hits supermarket shelves.

"We feel strongly USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) would be the appropriate regulatory agency and has an advantage over FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration)," Ellingson said.

Unlike FDA, USDA has label pre-approval authority before a product goes into the marketplace, Ellingson said. While FDA often takes action after the fact.

"Instead of being reactive, we want to be proactive," Ellingson said.

She compared this to issues the dairy industry faced with alternative milk products in years past. She said the industry issued complaints to the FDA about almond milk makers labeling its product milk.

"It's 18 years later, and there's been no response," she said.

However, this summer Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb proposed enforcing its own labeling rules for milk, which could prevent producers of almond milk and oat milk from continuing to use the term.

The argument in the case of dairy is over what FDA calls "standards of identity," legal definitions applied to products so consumers know what they are buying. In March, the FDA started work to update these standards to keep up with new developments in food technology.

"It's caused so many problems in the U.S. because of their loose definitions," said North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring.

But Ellingson said the agency has been slow to respond and the stockmen's association is concerned over how that kind of delay could negatively impact livestock. She said USDA has indicated its willingness to regulate "cultured" meat as it already regulates meat under its inspection authority.

"We're proud of the product we raise," Ellingson said. "We already compete with alternative protein but we need a level playing field in order to do so."

The FDA held a public meeting on "cultured" meat in July.

"While FDA has been well-versed in the use of cell-cultured technologies in medical applications for some time now, we now find ourselves with the need to look at these technologies in the context of food production. That owes to the continued ingenuity of the food and agricultural industries that are adopting these tools and the recognition of new marketing opportunities by entrepreneurs," Gottlieb said at the meeting.

"Consumers care deeply about ensuring both safety and accurate labeling surrounding their foods and these are both roles that FDA has been charged with carrying out for the products that we regulate," he said. "In fact, we regulate about 80 percent of the food supply."

But Goehring said USDA, and the North Dakota Department of Agriculture by association, has authority on all meat and meat protein.

"The FDA somehow believes they have authority even though it doesn't really fall under their purview," he said, adding he and other state agricultural commissioners are in agreement on this issue.