OPINION: Oversight Of Emerging Technologies Will Affect Farmers, Consumers

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Ron Prestage Former President, National Pork Producers Council
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I am a pig farmer, and my fellow livestock and poultry farmers and I have a big problem with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA is on the verge of screwing up two big issues that could have a profound impact on farmers and consumers.

There’s a tug of war between FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to see which agency gets authority over laboratory-produced cultured protein and gene editing in livestock production.

While the two agencies are talking about proper jurisdiction of cultured protein — they’re holding a joint meeting on the topic Oct. 23-24 — FDA has been angling for primary authority, which early indications are would consist of minimal oversight, allowing manufacturers to avoid scrutiny of their processes and products and to make virtually unregulated label claims.

President Trump needs to hear about this, and I am sure that when he does, he will have our backs and resist this regulatory power grab. In the FDA’s movie, livestock farmers and consumers in places such as Argentina, Brazil and Canada win and ones in America lose.

Livestock farmers like me demand that USDA take the reins. Here’s why:

Congress gave the Agriculture Department explicit authority to regulate meat and poultry products under the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act. So, products derived from technology utilizing cell lines of livestock and poultry origin fall neatly under those laws, which are administered by USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS).

The FDA could have a role in reviewing the safety of ingredients used in or regulating the processing steps of the cell culture process. But FSIS has the personnel, programs and capability to provide risk-based inspections of facilities and, most important, the finished products and to apply strict product labeling standards that ensure consumer awareness of what cultured protein is and how it’s produced. (Manufacturers of cultured protein should be required to inform consumers about what their products are and what they are not — just like real meat producers.)

This is critical. Many manufacturers have promoted their plant-based and cultured protein products as being more sustainable, environmentally friendly, ethical or “pro-animal” than real meat. Such claims generally have been accepted without challenge by interested consumers but have not been subject to rigorous examination.

The dubious assertions could negatively affect farmers and, ultimately, consumers, forcing some of the former out of business and costing all the latter more for food.

There also are a lot of unanswered questions about cultured products – the newer and, so far, less commercially viable technology. What are the animal sources of cell lines? What inputs are used to replicate cells? How are animals “fed”? If antibiotics are used in source animals, how can manufacturers be allowed to call the resulting products “clean”?

On gene editing in food-producing animals, FDA has no statutory authority to regulate it; plain and simple. USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service already regulates gene editing of plants and has statutory authority under the Animal Health Protection Act to regulate it in livestock and poultry as well.

The technology offers farmers remarkable promise for improving the health and well-being of their animals and the safety of the food they produce. In pork production, for example, researchers are close to changing the pig’s genetic code to eliminate Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome, an incurable disease that annually costs U.S. hog farmers as much as $660 million. (Worldwide losses top $1 billion a year.)

FDA, though, would strangle the technology in its cradle, seeking to regulate gene editing as an animal drug. Such an approach would entail lengthy and expensive approvals and functionally would make gene-edited animals living animal drugs — and every farm raising them a potential drug manufacturing facility subject to inspection.

It’s an absurd result that would send food-animal production outside the United States. If you’re a vegan, maybe you’d like that. But if you are a hard-working farmer like me, it’s a kick in the teeth.

USDA would take a risk-based approach that considers the familiarity or complexity of genetic changes and the fact that they could be achieved through conventional breeding techniques, although at the expense of time.

Certainly, there is room in the marketplace for cultured protein products, and there’s a need for gene editing to produce food-animals free of diseases. Giving regulatory oversight to the right agency will ensure both technologies won’t get tangled in red tape, will be embraced by consumers and won’t place our food security in the hands of other countries.

Dr. Ron Prestage is a veterinarian and a hog and turkey farmer from Camden, S.C.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.