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Monday, May 2, 2022

Q&A: Saylor Soinski ’23 on Cultured Meat, Boundary Animals, and Legal Animal Advocacy

The Sonoran pronghorn, one of the subjects of research by Saylor Soinski ’23. photo: James Fee/Creative Commons

Saylor Soinski ’23 is the 2021–22 co-president of the Yale Animal Law Society and an Emerging Scholars Fellow at the Brooks Institute for Animal Rights Law & Policy, which supports students who intend to pursue a professor appointment and make animal law a significant component of their teaching and research. Soinski is an alum of LEAP’s Animal Law course and is at work on a number of animal-related projects, including an examination of the FDA’s approval process for cultured meat, a theoretical examination of the domestic-wild distinction in law, and an analysis of how property law interacts with animal migrations. LEAP Program Fellow Noah Macey spoke with Soinski about her research. Their conversation has been edited for clarity.

What sort of projects are you working on as a Brooks Emerging Scholars Fellow?

Saylor Soinski with her dog
Saylor Soinski ’23

There are three animal-related papers I’ve been working on. One’s going to be published in the University of Louisville’s Journal of Animal and Environmental Law fairly soon. It’s called “The Semiotics of Meat: FSIS Regulations and the Construction of Meaning,” and it’s about the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s approach to the notice-and-comment period for cell-cultured meat labeling regulations. Specifically, it’s about their assumption that it’ll be labeled differently from conventionally slaughtered meat. That assumption reflects a deviation from their internal policy, which states that FSIS should only make a new standard of identity if there's something biologically or chemically different about the new product. Physically, cultured meat is identical to slaughtered meat, and I argue that the current presumption in favor of a new standard of identity demonstrates they’re responding to the cultural symbolism of meat, instead of regulating it in line with precedent. I think this is especially striking considering that cloned meat didn’t get its own standard of identity. You can slaughter a cloned sheep and not have to change the label, but they’re starting with a strong presumption that cultured meat is going to be labeled differently from slaughtered meat.

Aside from that project, I’m working on developing the idea of “boundary animals” — animals that are difficult to classify as either wild or domestic — and how these animals reveal problems with relying on binary categorization to draft animal policy. These categories often don’t reflect material distinctions about the animals themselves. And the last project I’m working on is a property law paper, where I’m looking at strategies to preserve the migration range of the Sonoran pronghorn.

Could you talk a bit more about the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) project? Why would the agency create a new category for cell-based meat, but not something like cloned meat?

So before promulgating a new regulation, FSIS has to get comments from the public. This comment period closed in September, though they accept late comments. The comments show a huge range of opinions, from people expressing religious objections to cultured meat to companies themselves submitting very thorough reports. It’s all over the map.

My theory about why they’re making this new category is that it’s a semiotics issue. Part of what people value about meat is that it’s slaughtered: meat embodies things that we value in our culture, like masculinity and conquest. I think you can see it in some of the branding of plant-based meat, like Beyond Meat calling their product the “beast burger,” trying to tap into this toxic masculinity that flows through a lot of the meat industry. Because we attach this symbolism to meat, FSIS sees the product as post-meat; it’s convinced that the product is inherently different even though it will be biologically and chemically the exact same product, just without the slaughter. This shows that slaughter plays a key role in creating what we think of as meat, beyond its identity as a bundle of cells — it’s something that has an American and masculine significance. This work implies that it will be difficult for plant-based or cell-cultured meat companies to become relevant in the market without upholding and reinforcing things we may not endorse, like the idea of some foods as masculine or feminine. It also poses problems for the assumption that as long as artificial or fake meats taste as good as slaughtered meat, people will adopt them. I think people do attach value to the fact that a live animal was slaughtered — the fact that meat involves killing an animal is not necessarily a con for everyone.

Did you do any comparative work with other countries? Is the FDA an outlier in how it’s regulating cell-based meat?

There’s not much out there. There are only two countries that have really interacted with cell-cultured meat in a significant way. Singapore has led the way in terms of cultured meat, and it’s already integrated into the culture in a lot of ways: there are restaurants where you can get it, and it’s more accepted. I don’t know much about law in Singapore, so I can’t say why that is or how it’s regulated. Israel is the other country with a lot of enthusiasm and funding for startups and cell-based meat research. There was a big moment when the former Prime Minister tried and approved of cultured meat. That would make a complicated comparative study because there's also controversy within Judaism about how cell-cultured meat fits into kashrut. On the whole, I note these case studies in the paper but didn’t delve into them.

Could you step through your argument about boundary animals? What are some examples of boundary animals?

The initial premise of the research is that a lot of animals are categorized based on whether we consider them to be wild animals or domestic animals, and those categories reflect what our duty is to care for those animals. So there are very few wild animal welfare laws, and partly that’s because we don’t think we’re responsible for their welfare in the same way we are for domestic animals. Many times, though, the categorization is not so clear, and my working theory is that there are certain animals that expose the arbitrariness of the categories: I call them boundary animals. For example, wild horses: I looked through legislative records from Congress about wild horses, and you see a lot of arguments between representatives from Eastern and Western states. Easterners say things like “these are like pets, schoolchildren write us letters about horses, they’re cute.” The Western state representatives make the horses out to be a nuisance and talk about how ferocious burros could kill your dog. They use the word “vermin” because they’re trying to counter the narrative that horses are like pets and make them out instead as intruders or wild beasts.

After all of this discussion, we were left with ineffective regulations: managing wild horses is simply a failed project. The populations aren’t thriving even if their numbers are stable. Wild horse management provides an example of why a focus on wild animal welfare could be helpful, because keeping populations up is no good if animals are starving. Wild horses make an especially interesting case study because they’ve been here so long that we think of them as a native species, but they’re not native to this continent.

So boundary animals are certain animals that provide this sort of window into the arbitrariness of these classifications. Ultimately, my argument is that there is no fair or logical place to draw the line between domestic and wild, which means there’s also no fair or logical way to decide where a duty of care stops. That point winds up playing into ideas about the Anthropocene. Say that having a certain number of contacts with an animal means we have an obligation to them. At this point, every corner of the earth and every animal on it has been touched by human activity — so if you say that our interaction with animals is what creates the duty of care, then we owe a duty of care to essentially all animals.

Caged wild animals or lab animals are other examples of boundary animals: how should this animal be protected, given that you took it and caged it? You’ve had many contacts with it, so whether you call it “domestic” or not, the law presumes you must meet welfare standards.

Beyond some theoretical applications of this work, at the most basic level, I hope it leads to an increase in attention to the welfare of wild animals. Wild animal management is mainly focused on population sizes, but I believe we should center welfare in some conservation programs.

Tell me about your paper on the Sonoran pronghorn. How does it relate to your other interests?

So I started with an interest in wildlife management at the U.S.-Mexico border, and I looked at animals who migrate across the border. The movement patterns create opportunities for multinational or binational cooperation. For example, take the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which I think of as a shared custody arrangement for certain birds — North American countries all say, “When the bird is in your country, don’t hurt it, because it’s kind of our bird ,too.”

Looking at other animals, the Sonoran pronghorn stands out because they have this huge north-to-south migration range that stretches into Mexico, but border walls have made it impossible for them to cross. They have this weird psychological bug: Sonoran pronghorns are fast and can jump super high, but they will not jump over fences.

So far, the situation has been dealt with through voluntary agreements. There are now two separate populations of Sonoran pronghorns, one in Mexico and one in the U.S., but they’re artificially separated. The agreements between the two countries are strange: they let each population grow, and then they transport pronghorns from one side to the other to increase genetic diversity. To me, this feels absurd considering that these animals would simply walk across if there were no fence. Private conservation groups, Mexican governmental conservation agencies, and U.S. agencies transport these animals, and a lot of them die. It demonstrates the absurdity of trying to fit natural processes like this into obviously artificial boundaries.

The pronghorn migration comes into conflict with national security law — they’re critically endangered, but there are exceptions to the Endangered Species Act for border issues. Otherwise it would be illegal to bottleneck and cut off the population in this way. These exceptions mean that pronghorn conservation relies on informal voluntary agreements. Even within the U.S., there are issues because the pronghorns cross through private land, public land, and military lands — so most of the writing on this topic so far has been about how we incentivize people to enter these informal agreements to let the pronghorns migrate. I’m mapping out the property interests to identify who the actors are, and based on that, I’m looking to see whether there are property level solutions to the problem instead of economic ones — can federal agencies create an easement on the properties, empowered by the Endangered Species Act, to require property owners to let the pronghorns pass?

How did you start down the animal law and legal advocacy path?

I grew up around animals, and on a purely personal and emotional level, I love them. I kind of moved away from it in college because I was curious about new opportunities. Then when I got to law school, I realized, “Oh, this has always been the thing that makes me excited.” I also really like the conceptual and theoretical work, though obviously there are political and litigative elements. There’s that quote, “Animals are good to think with,” and I think that’s true: they expose so many interesting things about the structures that currently exist. I love being able to marry practical policymaking and litigation strategies with philosophical questions about who we are and what we owe to others. Everything is imbued with those questions, and I find that compelling.

There’s important work to be done in advocacy and getting people to care about these issues, but I think at this point we’ve seen with climate change and species extinction that many of the problems are rooted in massive organizations like big corporations and the U.S. government, which are designed to be devoid of care or warm feelings towards animals. I think that if bureaucracy has stripped emotion from the decision-making process, it’s harder to feel like personal appeals and public campaigns will have a huge effect. So I think I see legal strategies as part of a comprehensive project. Legal strategies are a way to put your foot down and say, “I don’t really care if you care about animals or not — you can’t abuse them, you can’t destroy their habitat. And I don’t need to win you over right now, I just need to make you stop.” With the sense of urgency behind climate change and animal extinctions, we need to be able to exert power over the government and large actors to stop them from doing what they’re doing, whether or not they care.

Something I’m interested in doing in law school and through scholarship is trying to move animal law and animal interests out of their position as a niche or isolated area of law. I want to find as many overlaps as possible between animal law and other areas of law, including health law, property law, administrative law, because animal issues touch almost everything. I would like people to think about animal issues as an area they can think and write about — like, okay, even if you only have a side interest in animals, that’s great. You’re welcome in this movement.