INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — An Indiana lawmaker is looking to tighten the screws on meat grown in a laboratory.
Laboratory meat is not yet commercially available but recent advances in the science have been significant enough to draw the attention of legislators and livestock farmers. "I think our traditional meat industry has it on their radar screen as a potential threat," said Chris Hurt, a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University.
State Rep. Terry Goodin (D-Austin) is presenting a "Truth in Labeling" bill that would prohibit so-called test-tube products from being labeled as meat. There's been no action on the proposal, with the state legislature still being so early in this year's session that began Jan. 3.
"I simply don't want big business to have the right to tell the public that the meat they are eating is farm fresh when it has actually been grown in a lab," Goodin said.
In August, Missouri became the first state to adopt such legislation.
According to industry insiders, cells are drawn from the tissue of an animal then incubated with heat and oxygen. The cells are then given sugar, salts and protein to grow as if they're still inside an animal.
Goodin said he believes Hoosiers would want to know if what they're eating came from such a process. Without labeling, he said people will assume the products are farm fresh when they're not.
"I think that's wrong and false advertising, and I think people have a right to know," he said.
It could be years before laboratory-grown meat hits store shelves with prices, like in any new technology, likely being expensive. The first “test-tube” hamburger in 2013 reportedly cost $330,000.
Prices are coming down, though. In 2017, laboratory food maker Memphis Meats unveiled that it could produce chicken meat at $9,000 per pound, or half the cost for a pound of its scientifically engineered meatballs.
According to the company's website, the goal is to have its products affordable enough to be on the market in 2021 and, eventually, to produce hamburger at $2 per pound. Hurt isn't sure if such a timeframe can be met, but doesn't rule it out.
He also said the industry should be taken seriously by livestock farmers as a potential competitor. Hurt said millions of dollars are being invested in research and development.
He also said consumers against the slaughter of animals provide an existing market for the products, and some of them feeling so strongly about the issue would probably pay the higher price.
Another market would be environmentalists citing methane naturally produced from the digestive systems of farm animals as being a major supplier of greenhouse gas emissions, and waste from livestock as a source of water pollution.
Hurt doubts if a traditional meat lover tailgating outside a football stadium, for example, would be as open-minded about placing a steak manufactured by science on the grill.
Long-term, he said the keys are bringing down cost of production to a level more competitive with conventional sources of meat, and being able to make enough of the lab-based product to keep up with demand. He said taste, texture and acceptance from the consumer will also be especially important.
“While it's very expensive now and not able to be produced in mass amounts, I think there's a lot of concern that could change quickly," Hurt explained.
Presently, there's a debate going on in the nation's capital on whether USDA or the Food and Drug Administration is going to regulate the industry if it does fully develop. "Is it a threat or is it just a concept that is going to come and go? I don't think any of us know that right now,” he said.
Hurt said the proposed Indiana labeling requirement is similar to the ongoing fight against products labeled as milk when they don't come from a cow. Almond milk, for example, is plant-based, as is soy milk.
"If you can stop a competitor early in the going, that makes a lot of sense. I don't think the meat industry is trying to stop these attempts, but they're sure not wanting them to piggyback on," he said.