LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The meat industry may be on the cusp of a major revolution. As we reported yesterday, new plant-based products that taste, look and cook a lot like meat are flooding the market. But an even bigger shake-up could hit when companies growing meat from animal cells in laboratories scale up that process. As Frank Morris from member station KCUR reports, the livestock industry is busy trying to make sure regulators don't take any shortcuts on cell-based meat.
FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Out on his farm near Paola, Kan., Mark Nelson grows meat pretty much the way people have for thousands of years.
MARK NELSON: I'll give them a bucket of feed. (Yelling) Cows.
(SOUNDBITE OF COW MOOING)
NELSON: They'll talk back to you it seems like. (Yelling) Cows.
MORRIS: Nelson says the idea of meat grown in labs - or vats, as he puts it - presents a threat to his livelihood, if only a distant one.
NELSON: When you start getting into that vat meat and all that, I mean, that, to me, is not - that's not safe. And we've got enough problems with people jumping ship and, you know, going to other types of food sources.
MORRIS: Like plant-based meat substitutes - that market's growing by 20 percent a year, attracting lots of investment and meat-eating customers who like the environmental benefits or see nutritional advantages. But what really spooks livestock producers is something else - meat, actual meat grown in labs without the inefficiencies of breeding, feeding and slaughtering animals. Joshua Tetrick, co-founder of the food company Just, says that will be a game changer.
JOSHUA TETRICK: I grew up eating lots of meat in Alabama, but I didn't get the chance to eat the best meat in the world. And through this process, we're going to be able to feed people all around the world Wagyu hamburgers and bluefin tuna and some of the most premium meats in the world.
MORRIS: Just is one of a couple of dozen companies around the world trying to figure out how to scale up production of cell-based meat. It's promising. Meat companies like Tyson and Cargill are involved, but the technology isn't there yet. It currently takes huge amounts of money and effort to bring even tiny helpings to the table. Still, Tetrick predicts that his company and others will be undercutting traditional beef, chicken and fish within a decade.
TETRICK: Well, probably the biggest obstacle outside the scientific ones is getting folks used to the idea that we don't need to slaughter animals en masse and deal with their waste to enjoy a nice turkey dinner for Thanksgiving.
MORRIS: But the cell-based meat industry also faces a rocky regulatory landscape. Mark Dopp with the North American Meat Institute insists that his industry wants a level playing field, which, from his perspective, means regulating this new product just like everyday meat but labeling it differently.
MARK DOPP: If these products are going to be marketed and sold and represented as meat, then the companies that make them should meet all of the other regulatory requirements that some company who's making ground beef out there has to meet today.
MORRIS: Livestock producers are lobbying hard to put cell-based meat under the USDA not the Food and Drug Administration. USDA already regulates meat production. And since it also promotes agriculture, it may be tougher on the emerging industry. Federal regulators came up with a compromise. Both the FDA and USDA will oversee cell-based meat. Though Congress may yet try to take the FDA out of it altogether and leave the U.S. Department of Agriculture in charge of regulating the most fundamental change in meat production since people began raising animals for food. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.