Bozeman Daily Chronicle: Bill seeks to proactively ban lab-grown meat from school lunches

by Isabel Hicks

Montana Sen. Jon Tester introduced a bill last week to ban lab-grown meat from being served in school lunches, arguing there are unknown long-term health impacts for children.

Tester co-sponsored the bipartisan “School Lunch Integrity Act” with South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds. It was introduced on Jan. 25 and sent to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

Specifically, the bill would ban lab-grown meat from being provided through the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture sets nutritional requirements for both programs, but there is no current guidance for lab-grown meat — which remains widely unavailable in the U.S.

In a press release, Tester said the bill would fix the lack of standards by banning the cultivated product from schools.

“Montana ranchers grow the best meat in the world, that’s a fact — and our students ought to be getting the best in their school breakfasts and lunches every day,” Tester said. “This commonsense bill will make sure our schools can serve real meat from our ranchers, not a fake substitute that’s grown in a lab.”

Getting kids to eat more local beef has long been a priority for Montana. Gallatin Valley Farm to School has a goal to serve 100% local meat in school lunches, and the Livingston-based Producer Partnership is helping send donated meat to food banks and schools statewide.

Food Services staff with the Bozeman School District could not be reached Tuesday for updates on local food procurement.

Tester’s legislation is part of a larger trend of proactively regulating substitutes for animal products. Lab-grown meat in particular has been the subject of previous Montana bills.

In 2019, Alan Redfield, a rancher and former Republican state senator from Livingston, sponsored the “Real Meat Act,” which passed the Legislature and became law.

The bill added a definition for a “cell-cultured edible product” in Montana law and bans such products from being marked and labeled as meat. It also redefined hamburger and ground beef as coming “entirely” from the flesh of a slaughtered animal.

Redfield said the legislation was a consumer choice bill aimed at making sure Montanans know exactly what they are buying once lab-grown meat becomes available in grocery stores.

“I had seen this talked about more in the news and thought, we need to get ahead of this,” Redfield said Tuesday.

While the regulations are forward-looking, over 150 companies globally are working to produce lab-grown meat at scale.

Last June, the USDA approved the sale of lab-grown chicken in the U.S. from two California-based companies, Upside Foods and GOOD Meat.

But it’s still out of reach for most American consumers.

The companies have limited serving their lab-grown chicken to two exclusive restaurants. GOOD Meat has partnered with DC restaurant China Chilcano and Upside Foods with Michelin-starred San Francisco restaurant Bar Crenn.

Lab-grown meat has remained largely inaccessible because of its high cost and is still produced in small batches. Texturally uniform foods like chicken are easier to grow compared to more complex cuts like steak.

But the companies hope that as they scale, their products will improve and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions, land use and widespread slaughter associated with animal agriculture.

“It may be another competitor but they can’t do it cheaper than you can by just putting a cow on some grass,” Redfield said of the prospect.

Also called cell-based, cultivated, cultured or in-vitro meat, the product is grown using harvested stem cells from a live animal. The cells are placed on a growth medium in a bioreactor and fed nutrients, growing into the muscle, fat and tissues that make up meat.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the common growth medium is fetal bovine serum, or blood taken from the heart of a cow fetus. Because of its reliance on live animals, companies have refrained from labeling products as vegan or plant-based.

Redfield said he views lab-grown meat as the “ultimate processed food” and that it’s healthier for people to get natural nutrients from real animals. He worried about what all was being put into lab-grown foods and if they could be adulterated.

He said he would support Tester’s bill to ban lab-grown meat from school lunches because kids are the most vulnerable population.

“Even the nutritionists are changing their tune and talking about how important feeding red meat to children is because the vitamin B12 is something that you really can’t synthesize as well,” Redfield said.

Early research has shown cultivated meat is nutritionally almost identical to its natural counterpart, and some studies have argued supplements could be added during the growing process to make it even healthier than the real thing.

Some are unconvinced. Tester’s bill is endorsed by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and other livestock industry groups.

“School cafeterias are not test labs,” Ethan Lane, the association’s vice president of government affairs, said in a release. “The lack of nutrition and allergen research related to lab grown proteins creates unnecessary risks for children.”