DeSantis wants to ban ‘fake meat.’ The world is watching.

Could a ban on cultivated meat in Florida help the People’s Republic of China?
Tanks, where cultivated chicken is made, are seen at the Eat Just office on July 27, 2023, in Alameda, California.
Tanks, where cultivated chicken is made, are seen at the Eat Just office on July 27, 2023, in Alameda, California. [ JUSTIN SULLIVAN | Getty Images North America ]
Published Feb. 10

The Florida Legislature got an unlikely shout-out earlier this month.

China Weekly, a Chinese language publication, mentioned a Florida bill that would ban the sale and manufacturing of cultivated meat, also sometimes referred to as lab-grown meat.

The Chinese government is investing heavily in the technology behind cultivated meat, the publication noted, according to a translation provided by University of Florida Assistant Professor Stephan Kory, who studies the language.

A Florida ban would strengthen China’s position, the publication said.

The cultivated meat issue could put Florida’s Republican leaders in an awkward position. As a candidate for president, Gov. Ron DeSantis ran on making American food production more competitive.

“China increasingly wields power over the global food supply, posing risks to our domestic food security and access to foreign markets,” his campaign website read.

But DeSantis seems to be supporting the ban on cultivated meat, which he referred to last week as “fake meat” — a position that could cause American companies to fall behind worldwide competitors in a key area of food science.

At least, that’s the argument made by those in the cultivated meat industry.

“Do we really want to cede innovation to our international competitors on the economic front?” said Justin Kolbeck, the co-founder and CEO of Wildtype, a San Francisco-based company developing a cell-cultivated salmon product.

DeSantis’ office did not respond to requests for comment.

If the bill passes, Florida would be the first state to ban the sale of cultivated meat. The industry worries Florida’s action could cause other states to follow suit. A lawmaker in Alabama has proposed a similar ban, and bills in New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Iowa would impose other restrictions on these products.

Cultivated meat isn’t big business, at least not yet. It’s a time-intensive process that’s difficult to nail, said John Sinnott, a professor of medicine at the University of South Florida. As a result, companies haven’t yet figured out how to scale their products.

But it has drawn almost $3 billion in investments from venture capitalists. There is hope that the technology could become reliable enough in the not-too-distant future to help meet the world’s demand for meat, Sinnott said.

Cultivated meat involves harvesting cells from animals, then growing them inside large bioreactors. If the cells are fed the right nutrients, they can grow into an approximation of meat like the stuff that comes from traditional animal farming.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture share responsibility for regulating the industry. So far, two companies have completed federal safety assessments, and customers can buy cultivated chicken at restaurants in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.

Good Meat, based in Alameda, California, is one of those companies. Tom Rossmeissl, the company’s head of marketing, said it took three years to satisfy federal safety regulators. The firm was in such frequent contact with the U.S. Department of Agriculture that it set aside a parking space outside its office for visiting officials, Rossmeissl said.

Rep. Danny Alvarez, R-Valrico, is the sponsor of the bill to ban and criminalize the sale of cultivated meat. His measure, HB 1071, would make it a second-degree misdemeanor to sell these products.

He said he’s pushing for a ban on these products because there are unanswered safety questions about cultivated meat.

“Everyone complains that the government is asleep at the wheel, that we’re not being proactive,” Alvarez said. “Well, this is us being proactive.”

Rossmeissl said there is no safety concern associated with his company’s product.

“The United States is the global leader in alternative proteins,” Rossmeissl said. “For Florida to pass a law banning (cultivated meat) for no good reason sends a really bad message to investors, to innovators, to biotechnology companies.”

The bill is widely seen by cultivated meat proponents as a favor to Florida meat producers because it criminalizes the product of a potential future competitor. The Florida Cattlemen’s Association and the Florida Farm Bureau Federation both support the bill.

Alvarez noted that his measure would still allow for research into cultivated meat. Currently, researchers at the Mote Marine Laboratory are studying how to optimize cultivated seafood. University of Florida researchers are studying “cellular agriculture.” These scientists could continue their studies, bill or no bill.

But for now, the Florida Department of Agriculture, led by Commissioner Wilton Simpson, says cultivated meat products are not ready for prime time.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions about the safety, ethics, and economic impact of synthetic meat. We support a ban until questions are answered,” Simpson wrote in a statement. “I couldn’t care less about Communist China’s comments, thoughts, or opinions on the matter.”