It’s not every day you see companies rejoicing at an announcement that the government is figuring out how to regulate their product.
But that’s exactly what happened Thursday, March 7, when the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that they’d established a framework for regulating cell-based meat and poultry. The companies working on those products were thrilled.
Why? Well, cell-based meat companies have been arguing for years that their product is meat and should be regulated like meat from slaughterhouses. And they’ve pointed out that, for America’s “clean meat” industry to remain competitive with the clean meat industries in Israel, China, Singapore, the Netherlands, Japan, and other countries, companies need assurance that their product will be responsibly regulated by the USDA and the FDA.
Proponents believe cell-based meat has the potential to solve a bunch of the world’s biggest problems in one shot. They hope it can end animal cruelty on factory farms, combat climate change, reduce the use of antibiotics to keep animals alive in cramped conditions, and make it possible to feed a growing, increasingly wealthy global population.
But to do any of those things, consumer confidence is absolutely critical. If people don’t believe that cell-based meat products are safe, regulated, and healthy, then they’ll stick with slaughtered meat. “Consumers must have confidence that cultured meat products are safe for consumption and appropriately labeled,” said JUST, a meat-alternatives company, in a press release applauding the decision.
That’s how the cell-based meat industry ended up actively working to convince the US government to step in and exercise its regulatory authority — and that’s why they were encouraged by the government’s announcement. By stepping in to regulate cell-based meat, the government is treating it as food subject to the same oversight as the rest of our food. If cell-based meat can do half of what proponents hope, that’s a really big deal.
The new regulatory framework for cell-based meat
The government’s announcement wasn’t very big in itself.
It’s a “formal agreement” between the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration about how to treat cell-based meat products. Basically, regulation of meat involves both agencies — the USDA overlooking food processing, labeling, and distribution, and the FDA conducting inspections and safety checks — and the regulation of cell-based meat will, too. This agreement outlines which problems are the jurisdiction of which agency, so they can develop further guidelines without stepping on each others’ toes.
“It provides a transparent path to market for cell-based meat products,” Elan Abrell, a senior regulatory specialist at the Good Food Institute, told me. The Good Food Institute is working on cell-based and plant-based meat alternatives, and has been active in the fight for rules like these.
The risk that the uncertainty would slow investment in cell-based meat research was clearly on the mind of USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, who has spoken at length in the last year about how to regulate cell-based meat. “We don’t want this new technology to feel like they’ve got to go offshore or outside the United States to get a fair regulatory protocol,” he said at a North American Meat Institute event last year.
The regulatory framework here is still preliminary, and it leaves some important questions unanswered — among them, labelling. Cell-based meat advocates argue that they should be allowed to label their products as meat, Abrell told me. In many states, legislation has been introduced — and in some cases has passed — prohibiting them from doing that.
The USDA’s labelling authority overrides that of the states — states are not allowed to impose labelling requirements incompatible with the standards that the USDA puts forward. That’s so we don’t end up with 50 different standards for the labelling of products, and higher food costs as companies try to comply with different requirements everywhere. So if the USDA says that cell-based meat products can be labelled as “cell-based meat,” “slaughter-free meat,” “clean meat,” or any of the other terms that have been proposed, that should settle the question.
In the real world, of course, it’ll be more complicated than that. Once a law is in place, someone has to have the grounds to sue, and then file a lawsuit, in order to change it. So if the USDA says it’s okay to label cell-based products as meat, there’ll likely be many lengthy fights in court before those labels are legal everywhere.
Abrell told me that the Good Food Institute was hoping the USDA’s leadership would stop such laws from being proposed and approved in the first place — that, now that the federal government is stepping up and characterizing their responsibilities on this issue, the states will stop trying to legislate meat-labelling law themselves.
Can cell-based meat live up to the hype?
In the regulatory agreement released Thursday, the cell-based meat industry cleared one major hurdle: US regulators are interested in ensuring that these technologies have a future here.
“We’ve got new technology with stem cell protein growth [referring to cell-cultured meat technology],” Purdue said in an interview last year. “Shouldn’t we in the United States be about how we can grow and feed people more efficiently and more effectively? … These techniques need to be embraced, not kept out.”
So cell-based meat will have its shot at living up to its promise. But will it?
There are still a number of hurdles to be overcome before we have cell-based meat in stores. First, there’s a challenge called “scaffolding” — figuring out how to shape cultured cells into tissue. Right now, cell-based meat techniques can make a decent replacement for, say, ground beef. But to replace a steak, you need to grow the cells into the tissues that they grow into in living animals. Researchers are still figuring out how to do that.
Once you have a product, there’s the question of scaling it. The hope for cell-based meat is that it can eventually meet all of the world’s demand for meat, which is steadily increasing as the world gets wealthier. To do that, it’s not enough to be able to make one steak — you need to be able to make steaks at the same incredible scale that factory farms do.
“There are lots of technical hurdles here to overcome,” Paul Mozdziak, a muscle biologist who studies lab-grown poultry at North Carolina State University, told Nature in February.
Then there’s the question of how much cell-based meat will help with climate change. Cell-based meat cultivation won’t produce methane, like our current agriculture does. But it’ll still be energy-intensive and thus relies on the availability of lots of renewable energy to avoid being carbon-intensive too. One study covered by my colleague Sigal Samuel argues that in the worst-case scenario it could be just as bad for the environment as conventional farming, though the study reached that conclusion with some highly questionable assumptions, like that our energy production methods won’t improve at all in the next 1,000 years.
With a regulatory framework now in place, proponents argue that these promises are likelier than ever to be achieved. Investors can invest more confidently, knowing that the US is working to ensure these products can be safely brought to market. With more money and more research, the remaining technical challenges might prove tractable.
But it’s also quite likely that cell-based meat will be slower to market than proponents hope and — at least initially — will not address all the problems it’s meant to. And it’s worryingly possible that, even if all goes well, consumers won’t be interested. All regulation can do is ensure cell-based meat products are safe, accurately labelled, and legal to bring to market.
For the companies working on those products, that’s enough for some rejoicing for the moment.
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Look at How Much “Game of Thrones” Characters Have Changed Over 8 Seasons
During the summer of 2019, the final season of Game of Thrones aired. The show had gone on for almost 10 years which is a long time not only for the characters but also for the actors who portrayed them.
Bright Side is remembering what characters looked like in the very first episodes of the groundbreaking series and is comparing them to what they look like in the final season of the show.
1. Cersei Lannister
2. Jon Snow
3. Tyrion Lannister
4. Daenerys Targaryen
5. Sansa Stark
6. Arya Stark
7. Jorah Mormont
9. Jaime Lannister
10. Sandor Clegane
11. Brienne of Tarth
12. Samwell Tarly
13. Davos Seaworth
14. Theon Greyjoy
15. Brandon Stark
Did you watch Game of Thrones? Did you enjoy season 8? Tell us in the comment section below.
Baltimore’s ransomware attack, explained – Vox
Thirteen bitcoins are standing between the city of Baltimore and many of the services and processes its citizens rely on after hackers seized thousands of government computers at the start of the month. The ordeal has been going on for two weeks, and there’s no clear end in sight.
Here’s what’s happening: On May 7, hackers digitally seized about 10,000 Baltimore government computers and demanded around $100,000 worth in bitcoins to free them back up. It’s a so-called “ransomware” attack, where hackers deploy malicious software to block access to or take over a computer system until the owner of that system pays a ransom.
Baltimore, like several other cities that have been hit by such attacks over the past two years, is refusing to pay up. As a result, for two weeks, city employees have been locked out of their email accounts and citizens have been unable to access essential services, including websites where they pay their water bills, property taxes, and parking tickets. This is Baltimore’s second ransomware attack in about 15 months: Last year, a separate attack shut down the city’s 911 system for about a day. Baltimore has come under scrutiny for its handling of both attacks.
The ransomware attacks in Baltimore and other local governments across the US demonstrate that as ransomware attacks spread, and as common targets such as hospitals and schools beef up their online systems’ security, there are still plenty targets vulnerable to this kind of hack. It also exemplifies the conundrum that ransomware victims face: pay up and get your access back, or refuse — potentially costing much more in the long run.
What’s going on in Baltimore, briefly explained
Hackers targeted the city of Baltimore on May 7 using a ransomware called RobbinHood, which, as NPR explains, makes it impossible to access a server without a digital key that only the hackers have.
The Baltimore hackers’ ransom note, obtained by the Baltimore Sun, demanded payment of three bitcoins per system to be unlocked, which amounts to 13 bitcoins to unlock all the seized systems. The note threatened to increase the ransom if it wasn’t paid in four days, and said the information would be lost forever if it wasn’t paid in 10 days. Both deadlines have now passed.
“We won’t talk more, all we know is MONEY! Hurry up! Tik Tak, Tik Tak, Tik Tak!” the note said.
The city government is refusing to pay, meaning that the government email systems and payment platforms the attack took down remain offline. The attack has also harmed Baltimore’s property market, because officials weren’t able to access systems needed to complete real estate sales. (The city said transactions resumed on Monday.)
Baltimore Mayor Jack Young, who’s officially been in his office less than a month, said in a statement on Friday that city officials are “well into the restorative process” and have “engaged leading industry cybersecurity experts who are on-site 24-7 working with us.” The FBI is also involved in the investigation.
“Some of the restoration efforts also require that we rebuild certain systems to make sure that when we restore business functions, we are doing so in a secure manner,” Young said. He did not offer a timeline for when all systems will come back online.
The Baltimore City Council president also plans to form a special committee to investigate this latest attack and try to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
A similar attack using RobbinHood hit government computers in Greenville, North Carolina, in April. A spokesperson for Greenville told the Wall Street Journal that the city never wound up paying, and that while its systems aren’t entirely restored, “all of our major technology needs are now being met.”
More than 20 municipalities in the US have been hit by cyberattacks this year alone. And such attacks can be expensive, perhaps especially if targets say they won’t pay. In 2018, hackers demanded that Atlanta pay about $50,000 in bitcoins as part of a ransomware attack. The city refused, and according to a report obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News, the attack wound up costing the city $17 million to fix.
Ransomware attacks aren’t new — but we’re still figuring out how to deal with them
In 2017, a ransomware called WannaCry targeted tens of thousands of computers using Microsoft Windows operating systems in more than 100 countries. Officials in the US and the United Kingdom eventually blamed North Korea for the attack. Also in 2017, corporations in the UK, France, Russia, Israel, and Ukraine experienced ransomware attacks. US hospitals were also targeted.
Here’s how Timothy Lee explained for Vox what was going on and how ransomware had become more prolific:
The basic idea behind ransomware is simple: A criminal hacks into your computer, scrambles your files with unbreakable encryption, and then demands that you pay for the encryption key needed to unscramble the files. If you have important files on your computer, you might be willing to pay a lot to avoid losing them.
Ransomware schemes have become a lot more effective since the invention of Bitcoin in 2009. Conventional payment networks like Visa and Mastercard make it difficult to accept payments without revealing your identity. Bitcoin makes that a lot easier. So the past four years have seen a surge in ransomware schemes striking unsuspecting PC users.
Some ransomware schemes are so sophisticated that they even invest in customer service, helping victims who want to pay their ransoms navigate the complexities of obtaining bitcoins and making bitcoin payments.
Since then, a number of sectors and organizations have made improvements to their security practices to protect against ransomware. But the latest Baltimore attack exemplifies what a whack-a-mole game this is: One area improves its practices and hackers just go looking for another.
Recode and Vox have joined forces to uncover and explain how our digital world is changing — and changing us. Subscribe to Recode podcasts to hear Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka lead the tough conversations the technology industry needs today.
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