In a sign that lab-grown meat is getting closer to finally reaching the market and significantly disrupting traditional meat-producing industries, the US Cattlemen's Association (USCA) is petitioning the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to restrict the definition of "beef" and "meat" exclusively to products born, raised and slaughtered in a traditional manner. The petition raises the question: Can lab-grown meat still be called meat?

Lab-grown meat has rapidly moved closer and closer to our market shelves over recent years. Promising tech start-ups such as Memphis Meats are effectively growing edible meat in laboratory conditions from animal cells. Despite refining the process to impressively resemble the look and taste of traditional meat, the technique has been infamously time-consuming and prohibitively expensive, keeping it from being easily scaled up to industrial levels.

Memphis Meats suggests its products will reach the general public by 2021, but another startup called Just (formerly Hampton Creek) is ambitiously planning its first lab-grown meat product to hit the market by the end of 2018. Unsurprisingly, traditional meat producers are viewing the looming disruption as a major threat, and are now officially drawing a line in the sand.

The petition to the USDA is relatively broad, encompassing both lab-grown meat derived from animal cells, and meat-like products produced from plant proteins. The claim covers, not only the label "beef" but also the more general term of "meat". The petition states:

"The "beef" and "meat" labels should inform consumers that the products are from animals harvested in the traditional manner, as opposed to derived from alternative proteins or artificially grown in laboratories. As such, the definitions of "beef" and "meat" should be limited to animals born, raised, and processed in the traditional manner, regardless of the country of origin. Synthetic products and products grown in labs from animal cells should thus not qualify to be labeled as "beef" or as "meat."

The proposition raises a compelling question: What is meat?

The petition does accept that, "sources generally define 'meat' as animal tissue or flesh used as food," but it adamantly insists that lab-grown animal tissue should not be labeled as "meat" and that the definition needs to be, "limited to the tissue or flesh of animals that have been harvested in the traditional manner."

Ultimately this is a philosophical argument. There is no fundamental difference between between a steak grown in a lab and a steak harvested from a slaughtered animal. Both are composed of animal cells, and from a molecular perspective are indistinguishable. But once these lab-grown products hit the market they will certainly need to labelled in some way to identify them as different from traditional "meat" products.

As these lab-grown meat products become cheaper and get closer to our market shelves, you can be sure this won't be the last you hear of this debate. With large, traditional industries under threat from entirely new technologies of production, the question over what can be called "meat" will be hotly debated.