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Commercial Question

"They're made out of meat?" The legalities of lab-grown food

updated on 31 March 2020


Can lab-grown meat justifiably be given the same legal status as conventional meat and what regulatory implications would this have?


Creating at least 78% fewer greenhouse gas emissions and using 99% less land than traditional livestock, lab-grown meat appears to be an obvious solution to the increasingly pressing need to practice environmental sustainability while fulfilling demand. Indeed, modern science and technological advances saw the first lab-grown meat taste test in 2013, and in the seven years since, production costs have been cut by 99.997% from $330,000 for a lab-grown burger to just $10. However, as lab-grown meat grows ever closer to entering the mass-market, so do the legal and regulatory concerns surrounding this innovative new product.

The legal status of lab-grown meat

Lab-grown meat is made using muscle cells, which are taken from the skeletal muscle of a living animal. The cells are placed in a nutrient and hormone-rich solution, which is also taken from a living animal. The cells are then placed in a controlled environment where they are allowed to multiply and grow. Biologically, therefore, lab-grown meat is composed of the exact same components as conventional meat. Legally, however, the position is less clear.

The Meat Products Regulations 2003 defines meat as “skeletal muscles of mammalian and bird species recognised as fit for human consumption with naturally included or adherent tissue". Skeletal muscle is one of three types of muscle – the other two being smooth muscle (those found in the walls of hollow organs such as the intestines and stomach) and cardiac muscle (which only exists in the heart). As lab-grown meat is made using cells taken from the skeletal muscle of a living animal, this requirement of "skeletal muscle of mammalian and bird species" seems to have been met.

However, the second limb of the legal definition requires the meat to have “naturally included or adherent tissue” because skeletal muscle cells are adherent cell types, which means they need to hold on to something as they grow. In an animal's body, that ‘something’ is the naturally included tissue. In a lab, that ‘something’ could be gelatine fibres that are spun to mimic natural muscle tissue's extracellular matrix and then seeded with muscle cells. Gelatine fibres spun to mimic natural muscle tissue's extracellular matrix don't sound very natural. And while gelatine fibres are derived from tissue, they cannot accurately be described as “natural or adherent tissue”, so the second requirement of the legal definition also does not appear to have been met.

However, there is a conceptual difference between whether lab-grown meat is classed as meat and whether lab-grown meat should be classed as meat. While the definition of meat seems to have proven adequate until recently, advances in technology mean that the current definition of meat is no longer fit for purpose in the present climate and requires updating, regardless of whether it is updated to include lab-grown meat. There has been substantial change in the meat industry, which has given rise to new issues that were not a consideration when the legal definition of meat was established in 2003, so the surrounding questions were not taken into account when the legislation was passed.

The regulatory implications of the legal status of lab-grown meat

An unambiguous legal definition that is fit for purpose is important, as it would provide the setting in which regulations can be developed. Currently, there are no UK laws that deal with the production and labelling of lab-grown meat. With lab-grown meat expected to hit supermarket shelves by 2025, the uncertainty surrounding the legal standing of lab-grown meat – and the resulting lack of regulation – will quickly become problematic.

There is confusion surrounding how to define lab-grown meat and this causes confusion about which regulations apply to – and which regulatory body would have jurisdiction over – this new product. In the UK, there are questions about which regulations would apply:

  • If lab-grown meat is given the same legal status as meat, the EU Agricultural Products Standards Regulation would apply.
  • If the lab-grown meat is classed as a genetically modified organism (GMO), various regulations governing GMOs would apply.

In the US, there is a disagreement between whether the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would have jurisdiction over lab-grown meat. Lab-grown meat originates from livestock, so it would potentially fall within the USDA's jurisdiction, but the process involves growing it in a lab using techniques that the FDA regulates as part of its oversight of other food and drug products.

Regulation is important, as it gives us clarity about regulatory expectations and provides a definite path to the market. Without regulation, anyone could sell products that may compromise the safety of its consumers. Additionally, we could find ourselves accepting lab-grown meat from anywhere without thinking about how it is produced, who should be allowed to produce it and what restrictions should be placed on its production.

Conversely, we could find that we become unable to make full use of this innovative new solution to our world's food problem if it is banned or becomes taboo without proper scientific or moral debate. These concerns need to be addressed ahead of time, to ensure that ill-debated decisions are not made at the last minute when lab-grown meat has reached supermarkets.

“They’re made out of meat”

In the words of science fiction author Terry Bisson, "they're made out of meat". But under the words set out in the Meat Products Regulations 2003, we're not so sure.

In August 2018, Missouri became the first state in the US to enact a law stating that the word "meat" cannot be used to sell anything that "is not derived from harvested production livestock or poultry”. But is the method of harvest really the appropriate deciding factor as to whether something is meat or not? The biological make-up of lab-grown meat and naturally grown meat is exactly the same, so the question that needs to be addressed is: ‘what do the consumers think meat is?’ Is it simply the muscle of an animal? Or does it have to be the remains of a once-living creature?

Regardless of the answers, a definition – one that actively takes this debate into consideration – must be created for the legal status of lab-grown meat to be determined. Regulations surrounding its product and labelling can subsequently be formed to ensure the health and safety of its consumers. Then the individual can decide whether lab-grown meat is something to be shunned or embraced.

Elizabeth Zang is a trainee solicitor at RPC. She is currently sitting in IP and technology team.