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The pushback from legislators sympathetic to ranchers and the broader meat industry puts cultivated meat companies in a difficult situation. Major meat producers Cargill and Tyson have both invested in cultivated meat companies, while Brazil’s JBS is working on a cultivated research site in Brazil. “We see ourselves as an ‘and’ solution, not an ‘or.’ We’re never looking to replace conventional [meat],” says Sean Edgett, chief legal officer at Upside Foods, a cultivated meat startup which counts Cargill and Tyson among its investors. “We think there’s always going to be a place for it on the market. So as I look at these bills, they seem very protectionist.”

Wildtype cofounders Justin Kolbeck and Ayré Elfenbein have visited legislators in Arizona, Alabama, and Florida to try to persuade them to vote down or amend proposed legislation in those states. “The shift we’re seeing is toward something that is far more extreme, which is talking about outright bans,” says Elfenbein. The cofounders are particularly keen on a carve-out for cultivated seafood, pointing out to legislators that the US is a net importer of seafood and that a new source of fish would improve food security within the country.

Also worrying for cultivated meat companies are a number of proposed bills that would impose new labeling restrictions. A proposed bill in Arizona would prevent companies from using meaty terms to describe products made from cultivated meat, plants, or insects. A similar bill in West Virginia that passed in March requires any cultivated meat product to be labeled as “cell-cultured,” “lab-grown,” or a similar term. The fact that legislators are proposing legislation that lumps cultivated meat together with insect meat—a category that many would-be consumers find gross—is a worrying sign, Almy says.

A political backlash against cultivated meat isn’t surprising, says Sparsha Saha, a lecturer on meat and politics at Harvard’s Department of Government. “I think it was always going to be political fodder, because you have conglomerates, you have a very powerful and increasingly integrated meat and dairy sector,” she says.

In Florida, the debate was particularly extreme. On the House floor, representative Dean Black called cultured meat a “bacterial culture” and “nitrogen-based cellular protein paste.” Representative Daniel Alvarez compared the cells found in cultured meat to cancer.

Such arguments are extremely misinformed, says Elfenbein. “A lot of the arguments that were made were made under the false pretense of safety,” he says. On X, Florida’s agricultural commissioner has compared the Food and Drug Administration’s conclusion that cultured meat from two US companies is safe to eat to mask mandates. “It’s inherently a political war,” says Saha.

Behind closed doors, lawmakers strike a more balanced tone, says Edgett. “Our conversations with all these lawmakers in their offices are very different to what they are on the floor,” he says. Upside Foods has released a blog post urging prospective customers to ask Governor DeSantis to veto the bill.

Resistance from lawmakers to cultured meat is also bubbling in Europe. In November, the Italian parliament approved a ban on the food, which is not currently available to customers anywhere in Europe. It is not clear, however, whether the Italian law will stand, as it may violate a European Union directive designed to stop regulatory barriers within the bloc. In a meeting of the EU Agriculture and Fisheries Council on January 23, a number of delegates called for “a renewed and broad debate in the EU specific to lab-grown meat.”

“The kind of laws popping up in the US and EU appear to be largely political theater but have the potential to negatively impact research, at the very least within those regions,” says Dwayne Holmes, director of research and innovation (EU) at the cultured meat research nonprofit New Harvest. “These laws are also arguably the unintended byproduct of a race-to-market hype cycle designed to create excitement, which in practice can cut both ways.”

The prospect of more state-level proposed bans lurks in the background. A proposed ban in West Virginia was introduced this year but is no longer an active bill. In 2023, Texas legislators brought a proposed ban that didn’t make it into law. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see that bill pop up again,” says Almy. Her hope, though, is that if a similar bill rears its head, legislators will have heard enough from nonprofits like the GFI and cultivated meat startups that they don’t take the same route as Florida. Cultivated meat might be approved for sale in the US, but the race to convince legislators to accept it is only just beginning.