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Bill defining meat in North Dakota goes to the governor, other states work on similar efforts

Staff at Schweitzer's Gourmet Meats retail store in Bismarck, N.D., weigh a steak for a customer on July 11, 2017. Law makers in North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana are considering bills to ensure that cell-cultured products could not call themselves meat. Jenny Schlecht / Agweek

BISMARCK, N.D. — The North Dakota Legislature wants to make sure that when consumers buy meat, they know they’re buying “the edible flesh of an animal born and harvested for the purpose of human consumption,” and not something developed in a lab.

The Senate on Monday, March 4, passed House Bill 1400, which defines meat and prohibits deceptive marketing of cell-cultured products that mimic meat. Only Sen. Dave Oehlke, R-Devils Lake, cast a no vote, with the final tally at 44-1.

The bill earlier passed the North Dakota House, with a 87-1 vote. Only Rep. Ruth Buffalo, D-Fargo, voted no in that chamber. The bill now goes to Gov. Doug Burgum.

The Senate on March 4 also passed a companion to the bill, House Concurrent Resolution 3024, which urges Congress to take similar actions to differentiate meat from lab-produced, meat-like products.

“We want to just make sure the government keeps us protected at the federal level as well,” Sen. Oley Larsen, R-Minot, said.

Larsen spoke on behalf of both measures, explaining that the goal was to “ensure accurate information for consumers making these purchases.”

Larsen also mentioned an important point for the meat and animal agriculture industries: avoiding what has happened to the labeling of alternative “milk” products. Shoppers “don’t necessarily know” if they’re getting a product like almond milk or a real dairy product unless they look closely, he said.

“That’s what this bill is about,” Larsen explained.

Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, said he once sponsored a bill with a similar aim that banned movie theaters from advertising buttered popcorn unless they were using real butter. While the bill, which did pass, drew laughs, he said protecting consumers and making labels clear are important matters: “As important as real butter on popcorn.”

National and state efforts

North Dakota is not alone in the region in seeking to mark the difference between meat and cell-cultured products this year. Legislatures in Montana and South Dakota have been debating similar bills.

The Montana Legislature is considering a bill similar to North Dakota’s. House Bill 327, called the Real Meat Act, would define meat and disallow cell-cultured products from being labeled meat. That bill has passed the House and awaits a Senate hearing.

Montana Rep. Alan Redfield, R-Livingston, said the bill was to protect people who thought they were buying meat from getting something that “came from a petri dish.”

In South Dakota, meat already is defined in a law that has been in place since the 1930s, Jeremiah Murphy, a lobbyist for the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, explained during a hearing in front of the South Dakota House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. Senate Bill 68, which has passed the Senate and has been placed on the House consent calendar with other bills with no expected opposition, deals with labeling and proper representation of products.

South Dakota Sen. Oren Lesmeister, D-Parade, explained that while the bill seeks to keep consumers aware of what they’re buying, it also seeks to protect the meat and animal agriculture industries. Millions of dollars from checkoff programs, paid for by agriculture producers, have promoted meat and its consumption and trade. Cell-cultured products should not be able to take advantage of those efforts and should not be in a position to hurt the meat industry if a cell-cultured product has problems.

“We don’t want this substance riding on our back,” Lesmeister said.

Numerous South Dakota agriculture groups also have endorsed the bill.

On the national level, the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture in November jointly announced they will share regulatory oversight of cell-cultured meats. FDA is tasked with overseeing cell collection, cell banks, and cell growth and differentiation. USDA is in charge of overseeing production and labeling of food products derived from the cells of livestock and poultry.