Political beef with ‘fake’ animal protein: Florida Senate passes ban on lab-grown meat

Cultivated meat, or meat grown from animal cells in a lab, is on the verge of being outlawed in Florida, after the Senate voted 26-10 this week to ban its production in the state.

“We know what beef is,” said Dusty Holley, the Florida Cattlemen’s Association’s director of field services. “We spent decades and decades making sure that we produced the most safe and wholesome products in the world,” Holley said.

The Florida Cattlemen’s Association supported the legislative action, which includes banning the manufacturing for sale, sale and distribution of cultivated meat in the state. Violators would be charged with a second-degree misdemeanor — punishable by up to 60 days in jail or a $500 fine — and an immediate stop-sale order.

The measure was awaiting action in the House, where a companion bill had already passed through three legislative committee votes.

The difference between cultivated meat and conventional meat, Holley said, is the years worth of regulation and inspection conventional meat has had. He doesn’t want cultivated meat to be labeled the same way as conventionally grown meat, he said. Cultivated meat is regulated by federal safety inspectors, according to the U.S.Department of Agriculture.

Last year, the Department of Agriculture approved the sale and distribution of cultivated chicken from two California-based companies. However, consumer access to cultivated meat across the country remains minimal.

Cultivated meat isn’t generally available yet for sale to consumers and there is debate among scientists if it will ever be economically viable. It currently costs more to produce cultivated meat than it does to produce conventional meat, said Tom Rossmeissl, the head of brand marketing for Eat Just, one of the cultivated meat companies approved by the Department of Agriculture.

“We’re in the early stages of this technology,” Rossmeissl said.

Most of the funding that goes into the cultivated meat industry is from private investment, said David Voorman, vice president of political action committee Food Solutions Action.

“We’ve gotten a letter signed by investors who say that this Florida bill really hurts their desire to want to contribute and to invest in this industry,” he said.

Bill sponsor Sen. Jay Collins, R-Tampa, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, works full-time as the chief programs officer for Operation BBQ Relief, a nonprofit that provides conventional meat to disaster-affected communities.

In2020, Florida’s agriculture sector reported $7.4 billion in sales, with 12.8% of that figure coming from sales of cattle, poultry and other livestock. Nearly 50% of Florida’sagricultural land is used for beef cattle production.

The cultivated meat ban in Florida will have “a huge chilling effect” on jobs and research, said Drake Jamali, legislative specialist at the nonprofit Good Food Institute, an advocacy group for “alternative protein innovation” which spent nearly $3 million lobbying on the issue since 2018, according to its tax returns.

The world's first cultured hamburger was unveiled at a news conference in London on August, 5 2013. The cultured meat product was developed by a team of scientists from Maastricht University led by Mark Post at a cost of $316,000. (Luisalvaz via Wikimedia Commons)
The world’s first cultured hamburger was unveiled at a news conference in London on August, 5 2013. The cultured meat product was developed by a team of scientists from Maastricht University led by Mark Post at a cost of $316,000. (Luisalvaz via Wikimedia Commons)

“A lot of the bill sponsors have said this won’t impact research,” he said. “That’s a matter of debate.”

Dyadic International, a Florida-based biotechnology company, creates some of the substances used to produce the cultured animal cells in cultivated meat.

Jamali said the bill wouldn’t prevent Dyadic from doing research, but if passed, he thinks it may affect the company’s wishes to sell its research and development to other companies. Dyadic executives declined to comment for the record.

Others conducting research are Aleph Farms. In 2019, the cellular agriculture company partnered with the International Space Station to grow the first cultured meat in space. An earlier version of the bill included an amendment banning the research of cultivated meat. But the amendment failed after opponents said banning research would affect the space industry, which is looking at cultivated meat for long-term space flights.

Advocates for alternative proteins outside of the state said the impact of the Florida ban will ripple nationwide.

Eat Just, a food company in San Francisco, was one of just two corporations approved to sell cultivated chicken in the country. The only place its cultivated chicken is available for tasting is at the company’s California headquarters.

“It’s sort of ironic that Florida — a state that really prides itself on individual liberty — is considering a law that will actually just restrict consumers from having a choice of what they want to buy,” said Rossmeissl, Eat Just’s marketing head. “The consumer should be able to decide.”

Wildtype, a California-based cultivated seafood company, is one of over 150 companies around the world developing cultivated food, specifically cultivated salmon. Its co-founders, Justin Kolbeck and Aryé Elfenbein, came to Florida to meet with legislators and speak against the bill.

“This bill will not protect American jobs when it comes to seafood,” Kolbeck said. “It’d be putting companies like ours out of business.”

Florida hasone of the largest seafood and aquaculture industries in the country. Kolbeck said being barred from selling cultivated seafood in Florida would lead to “collateral damage to the seafood industry.”

News of a potential statewide ban on cultivated food has already raised concerns among the company’s investors, Kolbeck said. “The whole thing is just fear mongering.”

Elfenbein, who studies and develops cultivated seafood at Wildtype, said he was baffled to hear about concerns over safety.

“There’s just this attempt to discredit what we’re doing,” he said. “It’s been a very kind of diffuse argument of we don’t know what we don’t know.”

In Alabama, a bill that would ban cultivated meat has been passed in its state Senate and moved to the state House Feb. 15. In Texas, a cultured meat labeling law was passed last year. In Arizona, abill about strict labeling regulations for cultured meat was approved in the House. Texas and Arizona have also had a cultivated meat ban bill introduced in their legislatures.