The GOP's got a growing beef with lab-made meat

The GOP's got a growing beef with lab-made meat
  • The fledgling lab-grown meat industry is being dragged kicking and screaming into the culture wars.

  • GOP politicians in four states have passed or are considering bans on "cell-cultured" food products.

  • But industry insiders say their products, while disruptive, aren't meant to be political.

Move over, electric vehicles and gas stoves: A new product is taking center stage in the culture wars.

In recent months, Republican politicians have taken aim at lab-grown meat — also called "cell-cultured" or "cultivated" proteins — seeking to criminalize its production and distribution before the companies creating the products can get to market.

And with the industry in its infancy, the GOP lawmakers are trying to strangle it in its crib by manufacturing a philosophical wedge to keep consumers away.

"They blame agriculture for global warming. I know the legislature is doing a bill to try to protect our meat — You need meat, OK? We're gonna have meat in Florida," Gov. Ron DeSantis said during a February press conference announcing an investment in rural broadband access, where he also vocalized his support of SB1084, a proposed law in Florida to ban cultured meat.

"We're not going to have fake meat; that doesn't work," DeSantis continued. "So we're gonna make sure to do it right. But there's a whole ideological agenda that's coming after a lot of important parts of our society."

Despite DeSantis' insistence that cultured meats are a cultural issue, the manufacturers certainly don't see it that way.

"There's nothing about cultivated meat that is a conservative or a liberal thing," said Josh Tetrick, CEO of GOOD Meat — a cultivated meat company with the largest market share of the global industry so far. "It has nothing to do with either party."

lab grown meat
The world's first lab-grown beef burger, created by a team led by Mark Post, a medical physiologist at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.David Parry/Reuters

SB1084 passed both houses of the state legislature and was submitted for review by the governor on March 6. A spokesperson for DeSantis told Business Insider the governor "will review the legislation in its final form once it is delivered to our office" and pointed to his February remarks about the statewide ban on cell-cultured proteins.

Meanwhile, across the country, part of a bill introduced by Arizona state Rep. David Marshall reads, "Cattle are one of the five foundational pillars that have driven Arizona's economy since territorial days," adding that "this legislation is necessary to protect Arizona's sovereign interests, history, economy, and food heritage."

Other red-state politicians are also responding to the threat to their red meat, including Alabama State Sen. Jack Williams and Tennessee State Rep. Bud Hulsey, who have supported or proposed legislation to ban cultivated meat in their states.

Representatives for Marshall, Williams, and Hulsey did not respond to requests for comment from Business Insider.

An FDA official told Business Insider that manufacturers must ensure foods meet all applicable federal requirements from the FDA and USDA before entering the US market. So far, only a handful of lab-grown meats have met these requirements.

"The FDA continues to support innovation in food technologies, resulting in more choices for consumers in the marketplace while also prioritizing the safety of food produced through both new and traditional methods," the official said, adding the agency "did not have any questions about the safety of the cell-cultivated food produced using the process evaluated by FDA."

They're 'using cultivated meat as a cudgel — and it's just silly'

While the fledgling business of cultured meats has the potential to reduce the need to slaughter animals for protein, diminish the environmental impact of factory farming, and disrupt the livestock industry as we know it, insiders working on bringing the lab-grown products to market say the innovations are anything but political.

Their relative market share to meat industry giants like Cargill and Foster Farms and production capacity also remains far too small to represent any kind of threat to traditional livestock farming, industry insiders told Business Insider.

But that hasn't stopped lawmakers from targeting the industry, much to the dismay of those trying to bring their products to market.

"The past century of US prosperity has been driven by free market policies, and it's disappointing to see legislators move against what has driven the US to be the largest economy on the planet," George Peppou, CEO of Vow, which sells its cultivated meat product in Singapore, told BI. "Let the market decide with their own wallets, not legislators."

A dish made with Good Meat's cultivated chicken is displayed on a white plate.
A dish made with Good Meat's cultivated chicken is displayed at the Eat Just office in Alameda, California. The US Department of Agriculture authorized two California-based companies, Upside Foods and Good Meat, to sell chicken grown from cells in a lab.Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

"There's no question there's an attempt to create this right-left division using cultivated meat as a cudgel — and it's just silly," said Tetrick, whose GOOD Meat has sold less than 5,000 pounds of its cultivated chicken protein since it received approval to sell in Singapore in 2020.

"We find it pretty hypocritical because, in a lot of these states, there's a beating of the chest about free market capitalism and the American way," he said. "But in the middle of beating their chests, they're saying, 'except when it comes to something that would potentially harm an industry that I rely on for donations.'"

According to OpenSecrets, Greener Pastures, a poultry farming company, donated $100,000 to DeSantis in 2022, just one major donation out of the $1,700,118 the governor received from various agricultural businesses that year.

Alabama Sen. Williams, whose bill, which passed in February, makes it a Class C felony to manufacture, sell, or distribute cultivated meat in his state, accepted $11,000 worth of agribusiness donations in 2022, including $2,500 from the poultry and egg industry, the political donation watchdog found.

Representatives for DeSantis and Williams did not say whether their campaign backers from the farming industry influenced their perspectives on banning lab-grown meats.

Lab meat
A nugget made from lab-grown chicken meat is seen during a media presentation in Singapore, the first country to allow the sale of meat created without slaughtering any animals.Photo by NICHOLAS YEO/AFP via Getty Images

GOOD Meat received USDA approval to sell its product in the United States in June 2023 and is one of just two companies creating cultured meat to receive the green light thus far. Representatives for the other company, Upside Foods, declined to comment for this article.

Tetrick told BI the bans are just a stumbling block for companies like his as they grow. "And we think they'll get struck down anyway," he said.

While it can be frustrating to navigate individual states attempting to negate a federal agency's approval, some in the industry think the attempts to ban their products are a sign they're doing something right.

"If you put energy into banning something that doesn't even exist on the market, this is amazing — it means that it's going to be huge," Roman Lauš, founder and CEO of Mewery, a Czech food tech startup working on developing cultured pork that does not yet have approval in the US, told BI.

"But I would say it's a political decision, and politicians should basically not interfere with the food safety business; they should let the customers decide what they want to eat," he added. "If the USDA and FDA approve these kinds of foods, I would say this is the highest authority in the whole country, and their word should be followed."

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