Slow Cooked: How conservative efforts to sabotage the regulatory process could stifle America's lab-grown meat industry.

AuthorGedye, Grace

"... such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) ... [shall become the Seat of the Government of the United States"


We came up with the idea to use one feather, from the single best chicken we could find," says the narrator of a video for Just, a Bay Area biotech company. Later, a handsome farmer pulls a white feather out of his shirt pocket and puts it in a test tube. It's a promotion for the company's new product: chicken grown in a lab. "You can take just a handful of cells, and keep growing them, essentially infinitely." Fast forward to the company's research chef seasoning chicken nuggets at an outdoor cookout. A group of young people sit at a picnic table in a grassy backyard while a chicken wanders near their feet. They're eating nuggets, the video claims, made from the cells of that very chicken.

Just has been racing against other biotech start-ups toward a revolution in food science: meat that doesn't require slaughtering animals. By culturing chicken, pig, and duck cells, it's now possible to make chicken nuggets, chorizo, and duck a l'orange-and the products are getting closer and closer to tasting just like traditional meat. The technology holds the promise of being dramatically less land and water intensive compared to conventional animal farming. Just hasn't announced when their products will hit grocery store shelves, but competitor Memphis Meats expects to sell cultured chicken and duck by 2021.

But there's something that could stand in the way of this rapid progress: government regulation. Not in the way you might be thinking, though. The issue isn't too much regulation--it's too little.

This past October, Josh Tetrick, Just's CEO, sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. He wasn't writing to complain about burdensome rules. Rather, his worry was that there were no clear regulations for his industry at all. "Companies pursuing innovative, sustainable meat technology," he wrote, "need clarity about regulatory expectations and a defined path to market." Without oversight from the federal government, it would be impossible to build up the brand--why would anyone feel safe eating the product? Anyone could claim to sell cell-cultured meat, make people sick, and sully the whole idea, bringing responsible companies down with them. And if they tried to just start selling their products, regulations be darned, they could be opening themselves up to a world of lawsuits.

At a public meeting a few weeks later, Perdue admitted the problem. "The industry," he said, "is already ahead of us."

The slowest thing in Washington, next to Beltway traffic at rush hour, is the regulatory process. For example, as Barack Obama left office, neither the Affordable Care Act nor the Dodd-Frank banking bill--Obama's two signature legislative achievements--had been fully translated into regulations, meaning that parts of the law had not gone into effect seven years after being passed by Congress. These delays are less the result of regulatory agencies dragging their feet...

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