Bill would keep cultivated meat away from school menus

Sens. Mike Rounds and Jon Tester say legislation would protect both students and livestock producers.

Roy Graber Headshot
Sens. Mike Rounds and Jon Tester
Sens. Mike Rounds and Jon Tester
Official U.S. Senate photos

It might seem unlikely that cultivated meat will makes its way onto the trays in school cafeterias, at least for the time being, two United States senators are taking steps to assure that it doesn’t ever happen.

Sens. Mike Rounds, R-South Dakota, and Jon Tester, D-Montana, recently introduced the bipartisan School Lunch Integrity Act of 2024, which would prohibit the use of cell-cultivated meat from being served in school lunches under the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and the School Breakfast Program (SBP).

In 2023, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) moved to issue grants of inspection for cultivated meat production, allowing two companies to produce cell-cultivated chicken products. Those companies are Good Meat and UPSIDE Foods.

According to a press release from Rounds’ office, USDA has not issued any guidance on cultivated protein in the NSLP and SPB, and Rounds believes a lack of demonstrated research on cultivated meats raises many questions on the safety of such products. He said he believes “students should not be test subjects for cell-cultivated ‘meat’ experiments.”

Advocating for true meat and poultry

While Rounds and Tester represent different political parties, they both represent states that are heavy in livestock production, and in the case of Rounds, poultry production as well.

Their remarks certainly reflect they seek to produce the protein producers in the states they represent. Particularly the beef cattle ranchers.

“Montana ranchers grow the best meat in the world, that’s a fact,” said Tester, who is also a farmer and former teacher. “Our students ought to be getting the best in their school breakfasts and lunches every day. This commonsense bill will make sure our schools can serve real meat from our ranchers, not a fake substitute that’s grown in a lab.”

“South Dakota farmers and ranchers work hard to produce high-quality beef products. These products are often sold to South Dakota schools, where they provide necessary nutrition to our students. With high quality, local beef readily available for our students, there’s no reason to be serving fake, lab-grown meat products in the cafeteria,” said Rounds.

Both senators have a history of advocating for agriculture producers in their states.

Rounds joined fellow South Dakota Sen. John Thune in January to write to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai. In their letter, they urged the officials to expedite discussions to update trade agreements that would allow the potential usage of a highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) vaccine.

Tester was a key lawmaker to seek scrutiny of a 2021 cyberattack on Brazil-based JBS and a proposal for a dual listing of the company on Brazilian and U.S. stock exchanges. He, along with Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming, introduced the Food Safety Modernization for Innovative Technologies Act in 2020, which would ensure that the interagency agreement between the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would have legal authority over lab-grown meat products.

Is bill really necessary?

In some senses, the legislation proposed by Rounds and Tester seems ludicrous.

School districts, or at least those with responsible administrators and board members, would be foolish to include cultivated meat in their school menus, given the previously mentioned food safety concerns.

But as school administrators are also always trying to be thrifty with their financial resources, and buying lab-grown meat is not thrifty.

Then there’s the fact that students, particularly those at the elementary school, can be picky eaters. I can just imagine kids yelling: “Ewww, gross! That’s not real meat. It was made by a mad scientist in a lab!”

You could argue that eating cultivated meat is an educational experience, but that might be better suited for the biology or chemistry classes.

So even though the School Lunch Integrity Act of 2024 might sound ridiculous now, but it is good that Rounds and Tester are forward-thinking. 

The reality is there could come a time when such alternative proteins are more affordable and better proven to be safe to eat. And if that if this legislation passes into law, those who are involved in genuine animal agriculture can know that their best interests were looked after in advance.        

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