The USDA and FDA recently announced their historic agreement to jointly regulate meat grown from animal cells, helping pave the pathway to commercialization of what’s often called cultured meat, clean meat, and now the newest term: cell-based meat.

Start-ups culturing meat and their supporters point out that cellular agriculture can theoretically produce vast amounts of meat with relatively few resources, all while leaving a lighter footprint on the planet and animals, as well as improving food safety.

Not everyone’s so enthused.

Some voices from the cattle ranching community are crying “bull” on cell ag. Their beef with cell-cultured beef primarily rests with the name game: They want these start-ups barred from even calling their products “meat” in the first place. That privilege, they claim, ought to be reserved solely for the flesh of animals who were once alive.

Unbeknownst to both sides, however, is that a very similar struggle took place in Washington’s halls of power recently.

Cultured diamonds?
Just as with meat, concerns abound over the mining of diamonds. From human rights to environmental issues, the problem is so serious that “blood diamond” entered our collective lexicon after Leo DiCaprio starred in the 2006 drama of that name.

Also just as with meat, scientists have now figured out how to grow actual diamonds in a lab. No, we’re not talking about cubic zirconia, which any self-respecting jeweler can easily detect as a fugazi. Lab-grown diamonds are so identical in composition to their mined counterparts that they’re essentially simply indistinguishable.

It takes millenia for a diamond to form naturally in the ground. In the lab: one week. Unsurprisingly, such lab-grown gemstones sell for a third less than mined diamonds. And before you wonder: Yes, whether made by humans or by nature, diamonds of both varieties are indeed “forever.”

Just one problem for the purveyors of such “ethical diamonds,” though: The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has long-defined a diamond as “a natural mineral consisting essentially of pure carbon crystalized in the isometric system.” [Emphasis added.]

Jewelry-sellers — perhaps “Big Diamond”? —lobbied for years to maintain that definition and to bar lab-grown gem-makers from marketing their products as “cultured diamonds.” Think about it: “cultured diamond” sounds a lot more romantic than “lab-grown diamond.”

In a victory for the little guy, this past August, the FTC sided with science and updated its diamond definition to exclude the world “natural.” In other words, the government now recognizes that a diamond is a diamond, regardless of its production method.

Jason Payne, cofounder of cultured gem start-up Ada Diamonds celebrated the federal shift. “Much like the concept of cultured pearls has been widely adopted and accepted by mainstream consumers as simply ‘pearls,’ ” Payne observes, “cultured diamonds are headed in the same direction.”

Cultured pearls are pearls, cultured diamonds are diamonds, and cultured meat Is meat
Just as diamonds formed under human-induced pressure are as much diamonds as those formed under natural pressure, cells growing into muscle in a cultivator are as much meat as those growing inside the animal’s body.

Cultured diamond marketers must still disclose their gems’ origin to consumers, but their identity as “diamonds” is no longer in question. The same should be so for meat: in the same way that many conscientious diamond consumers are now seeking out those of the cultured variety, it’s not difficult to imagine that there’ll be many meat consumers who’ll specifically opt for cultured meat precisely because they prefer the way it was produced. After all, few people today buy meat because animals were raised and slaughtered for it. Rather, it’s more likely in spite of it.

So where does this victory for cultured diamonds leave cultured meat start-ups? There’s still a long way to go. Yet just as diamond demand is increasing throughout Asia and other parts of the world, the same is so for meat. So just who will supply all that forthcoming demand?

Make American meat great again
At a recent public meeting on cellular agriculture, the heads of both USDA and FDA made it clear that they want to make American meat great again by establishing the United States as a world leader in this new field. Okay, so they didn’t say “Make Meat Great Again,” but they did admirably say that the administration wants America to be first in the cellular agriculture race.

These agencies will have a fine line to walk to avoid being the bull in the chinashop when crafting sensible regulations on what animal-free animal products can be called. But if we really want to be the “meat basket” of tomorrow’s world rather than letting China or others take the cell ag lead, looking to the FTC’s recent evidence-based decision is a good start.

Paul Shapiro

About the author: Paul Shapiro is the author of “Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World” and the CEO of The Better Meat Co. Shapiro is a TEDx speaker, the founder of Compassion Over Killing, and an inductee into the Animal Rights Hall of Fame. 

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