Schmidt bills address meat, dairy labeling

Assemblyman says cellular-based meats, plant-based liquids not facing scrutiny
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

Food that’s not raised on a farm doesn’t face as much regulation as the products farmers produce, according to Rep. Peter Schmidt, and he has a couple of bills circulating through the Wisconsin Legislature that could even the playing field.

Assembly Bill 555 would require meat created with lab-grown animal cells to be labeled as such. Schmidt, R-Bonduel, noted that he’s heard reports of restaurants running out of farm-grown meats and turning to lab meats as a substitute.

“This bill defines an animal as a mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian or mollusk,” Schmidt said. “Words over time get changed, and they’re getting misused in our food products.”

The measure has become law in other states, according to Schmidt, as a precautionary measure because lab-grown food is a new industry with little scientific research on how such food impacts humans. Fines for violations range from $100 to $500, and could also result in spending up to 90 days in jail, something Schmidt said came from the state’s old margarine ban, which was lifted in 1967.

“This bill mirrors those same penalties as margarine,” he said.

Schmidt, a farmer himself, is subject to regulations for the animals he raises, but laboratories do not face that kind of scrutiny, he said. Farmers are required to pay $1 per head into programs like the beef checkoff, established under the 1985 Farm Bill for the animals they raise, and he considers it unfair that labs aren’t paying their fair share.

“Everyone’s saying that cellular meat is greener for the environment than raising livestock or other animals for meat, and to me, there’s not enough regulation on cell production compared to what is there for animal husbandry,” Schmidt said. “Every few years, the feds update statutes and guidance for livestock and animal agriculture. The lab-grown cells are mostly in the research and development phase, so they don’t have many regulations to ensure safe products.”

There are 22 agriculture commodity checkoff programs, Schmidt added, and there shouldn’t be difference between the regulations farmers face and the ones scientists face. He noted those checkoff programs started as voluntary but became mandatory over the years.

“They (scientists) advertise meat products, and they get the actual benefit of using that name of meat,” Schmidt said. “There’s no federal program where cellular-based meats pay in.”

The second food-based bill Schmidt is working on addresses milk, specifically plant-based liquids being touted as milk such as almond milk and oat milk. Assembly Bill 952 forbids labeling a product as milk unless it comes from an animal.

“Plant-based beverages took off instead of the laboratory, cellular-based milk products,” Schmidt said.

He noted that he uses a device that produces plant-based beverages in his office, but he takes exceptions as a farmer to the products being labeled milk. With plant-based liquids, the nuts and grains have to be crushed, and Schmidt’s concerned that, over time, the term milking might be synonymous with crushing and give people the impression that farmers crush animals in some fashion to produce the milk.

“You can’t really milk a plant,” Schmidt said. “You’ve got to crush them in a blender to make it. That’s another reason why we need food-labeling bills to maintain the historical and customs of certain languages. The word ‘milk’ has been around for centuries and has been referred to mammals.”

AB 555 has gone through a hearing in the Assembly’s agriculture committee, while AB 952 is currently making the rounds in the state Senate.