The race to name cell-cultured meat

A new agreement in Asia crowns ‘cultivated meat' as the preferred term, but the naming debate continues in the U.S. Despite lacking answers, FDA shifts its investigation of the Daily Harvest incident. And universal school meals are on the ballot in Colorado with no formal opposition.


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Today, in Food Fix: 

– A new agreement in Asia crowns ‘cultivated meat’ as the preferred term for cell-cultured meat products, but the naming debate continues in the U.S.

– Despite lacking answers, FDA shifts its investigation of Daily Harvest incident

– Universal school meals are on the ballot in Colorado – and they’re running unopposed


The race to name cell-cultured meat

Some interesting news broke in Singapore overnight: The major companies across Asia growing meat and seafood from animal cells came to a regional consensus on what to call the products.

The winner? Cultivated meat.

This caught my eye because here in the U.S. we don’t quite have consensus on the best descriptor, though ‘cultivated’ is the clear industry favorite. (Think: Labels reading ‘cultivated chicken’ or ‘cultivated beef.’) In the absence of an official term, I’ve been using both ‘cell-cultured’ and ‘cultivated’ to describe this burgeoning product category of animal tissues grown for human consumption, a technology that bypasses the need for animal slaughter.

Years ago, the preferred terminology here in Washington was ‘cell-based meat,’ as startups pivoted from the term ‘clean meat’ – a moniker that antagonized the powerful meat industry. When USDA collected comments last year on labeling there was significant support for adopting ‘cultivated,’ but other suggestions were all over the map, particularly from opponents who prefer more derisive terms like ‘synthetic’ or ‘artificially cultured.’

In the media, you’ll still hear these products called all sorts of things. Just this week, I saw Forbes using ‘lab-grown’ and Bloomberg reporting on ‘No-Kill’ burgers.

Consensus in Asia: The big agreement in Asia was laid out in a memorandum of understanding, specifying that ‘cultivated’ is now the “preferred English-language descriptor for food products grown directly from animal cells” across the region. The memo was rolled out during Singapore International Agri-Food Week (SIAW) by the Good Food Institute APAC and APAC Society for Cellular Agriculture, along with more than 30 other industry leaders. 

The groups said it was signed by “nearly every” cultivated food startup in the region, as well as China’s Cellular Agriculture Alliance, Cellular Agriculture Australia, the Japan Association for Cellular Agriculture and Korean Society for Cellular Agriculture. Other signatories included: Future Ready Food Safety Hub (FRESH), which was jointly launched by the Singapore Food Agency, A*STAR and Nanyang Technological University, and other industry leaders, including Cargill and global seafood giant Thai Union.

(In case you missed it, I reported earlier this week on the formation of a new global alliance between the major trade associations across Asia-Pacific, Europe and the U.S. to tackle regulation and other issues.)

FAO goes with ‘cell-based’: While we’re talking names, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization released an overview of the sector this week that went with ‘cell-based food.’

Meat and seafood divide: Some of the division in the U.S. falls along product lines, with many seafood companies favoring ‘cell-cultured’ and meat companies opting for ‘cultivated.’ BlueNalu, a company that grows what it calls ‘cell-cultured’ seafood, has played a big role in the labeling debate. As I previously reported for Politico Pro, BlueNalu funded consumer research out of Rutgers University that found using the term ‘cell’ before other descriptors like ‘cultivated’ or ‘cultured’ increased consumer understanding. (You can find one of those studies here.)

As a reminder, FDA and USDA are going to share jurisdiction over meat and poultry products, but seafood will fall solely under the jurisdiction of FDA. No cell-cultured products have been approved for sale in the U.S., but this could happen in the coming months. Even if approved, however, it’s going to take a while for these companies to figure out how to scale production.

What’s in a name: Regardless of whether you want this sector to succeed or not, the nomenclature matters a whole lot. Almost half a billion dollars in venture capital has been invested to try and produce these products at scale – at a price point that’s competitive with traditional animal products, with a smaller environmental footprint – but ultimately none of that matters unless consumers buy in. 

I called up my dear friend and former colleague Chase Purdy, author of Billion Dollar Burger – the definitive journalistic account of this tech race – for his take on the ongoing naming debate. In Billion Dollar Burger, released in 2020, Purdy uses the term ‘cell-cultured,’ or ‘cultured’ for short, but acknowledges that many, many names have been used over the years. Purdy recalled finding the futuristic “In Vitro Meat Cookbook” that was published back in 2014. 

“It’s just a reminder of how many terms have been bandied about in the last decade, from ‘in vitro meat’ to ‘motherless meat’ and ‘clean meat,’ ‘cell-cultured,’‘cultivated,’ or just ‘meat’ alone,” Purdy told me. “All of those names got narrowed way down once the regulatory conversation started happening. You cannot approach the FDA and USDA seriously with a term like ‘motherless meat’ or even really ‘clean meat.’”

Consolidation ahead? Purdy thinks the cell-cultured/cultivated industry is primed for consolidation as the sector shifts from buzzy media hype toward a quieter chapter of figuring out approvals, and – most importantly – how to execute. Globally, there are about 120 companies in the space, and this technological quest has proven to be really, really expensive. “I think we’ve kind of hit the ceiling of how many can exist based on the funding,” Purdy said.

“There are no more announcements coming out about B2C companies,” he added. “Upside Foods, JUST, Aleph Farms, Finless Foods, BlueNalu, these places that have had a little bit of a head start on everyone. They have all the money. The venture capitalists have picked their racehorses and there are no new species or products to announce that are really going to capture someone’s attention.”

Supply chain constraints for equipment and other inputs has also greatly raised the costs of production, Purdy noted, which has only made consolidation more likely.


Despite lacking answers, FDA shifts its investigation of Daily Harvest incident

The FDA said this week that the investigation into what sickened hundreds of consumers who ate Daily Harvest French Lentil & Leek Crumbles has formally shifted away from the agency’s main outbreak response team, a development that comes as the agency has still not announced what, if anything, it has discovered about the cause.

“Although the response to this incident is no longer being handled by FDA’s Coordinated Outbreak Response & Evaluation (CORE) Network, FDA’s research and investigation to evaluate which components of this product may have caused these illnesses is ongoing and more information will be provided as it becomes available,” the agency said in an update

Refresher: Federal health officials have been investigating nearly 400 consumer complaints of gastrointestinal illness and liver, bile duct, and/or gallbladder illnesses linked to eating Daily Harvest French Lentil & Leek Crumbles frozen products that were recalled June 17. 

The numbers aren’t good: 133 people have been hospitalized to date. The most recent illness came in early September – frozen products can linger in freezers long after a recall. The company pointed to tara flour, a plant-based protein product, as the likely culprit. A Canadian company using the same ingredient in its smoothies has not recalled its products, even after complaints of illness.

Mystery: The agency said it has conducted an inspection and collected samples “in an effort to determine the cause of illnesses.” It’s been more than four months and we have nothing from the FDA on what, exactly, made so many people seriously sick.

Daily Harvest sales plummet: The frozen food company has seen its sales drop by more than half since May, Bloomberg’s Priya Anand reported this week. Puzzlingly, company officials claim that the French Lentil & Leek Crumbles debacle had nothing to do with this, citing instead a deep reduction in marketing spend.


Universal school meals are on the ballot in Colorado

Colorado voters will soon weigh in on whether to make universal free school meals permanent. Proposition FF is on the state ballot without any organized opposition and national polling suggests strong support is likely. 

If it passes, the program would be funded by an added tax to Colorodans making more than $300,000 per year, according to an analysis by nonpartisan legislative staff. The measure needs a simple majority to pass. For more on this, see The Denver Post.

The big picture: Universal free school meals programs are gaining popularity nationwide, particularly after schools and parents got used to the benefit during the pandemic. In addition to Colorado, several other states are now looking to extend the policy. (Check out this map of the action from FRAC.)

One poll from 2021 showed pretty solid support for the idea. A survey by Data For Progress found 74 percent of likely voters somewhat or strongly support making school breakfasts and lunches free in public schools. Check out the Data for Progress chart below for a party-specific breakdown:


What I’m reading

FDA works to protect consumers from foodborne illness and other adverse events (FDA). In a Q&A, three top agency officials – Stic Harris, Conrad Choiniere, and Michael Rogers – discuss some of the difficulties the agency faced investigating consumer complaints of infant illnesses and deaths from Cronobacter sakazakii. Two major challenges cited? That Cronobacter is not a notifiable disease and the bacteria is ubiquitous in the environment.

The number of US households on SNAP benefits ordering groceries online has doubled since 2021 (Quartz). This is a good overview from Michelle Cheng on how Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits have shifted toward online purchasing during the pandemic, complete with a chart. Food Fix readers may recall we first reported these numbers in August

How PepsiCo is working to convince its farmers to embrace regenerative agriculture (Food Dive). Major food and beverage companies are increasingly facing up to the fact that they need to dramatically cut their emissions – and soon. PepsiCo has pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2040. Company officials are pushing producers to adopt regenerative ag practices – like planting cover crops and reducing tillage – to meet these goals, reports Chris Casey

Turkeys will cost more because 6 million of them died during bird flu outbreak (Washington Post). In addition to record food inflation, we’re facing a turkey shortage a few weeks before the holidays due to a disastrous bird flu outbreak, report Erica Werner and Laura Reiley.

This newsletter was produced with help from Courtney Fahlin. The lead image is of cell-cultivated salmon, courtesy of Wildtype.


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