Science

Big beef looms over definition of lab-grown meat

Big beef looms over definition...
Can lab-grown meat still be called meat?
Can lab-grown meat still be called meat?
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Can lab-grown meat still be called meat?
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Can lab-grown meat still be called meat?

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.

Source: US Cattlemen's Association

12 comments
Craig Jennings
Like the growers care, that it's not "meat" from living animals is kind of the point of the exercise and they'll be shouting it from the rooftops.
Mr T
Yes, I think the big selling point of lab grown meat will be that it doesn't involve the cruelty of traditional animal farming. I'm not surprised that the incumbents missed this point, to them animals are just product, they don't see their industry as cruel, when it most certainly is. You can't kill an animal 1 year into a 20 or 30 year lifespan and not be being cruel, thinking you can is just delusional fantasy.
Anne Ominous
It is far too early to say "there is no fundamental difference". We really don't know that. And may not know that for a long time. As with GMOs. Natural plants arrived where they are via millions of years of evolution. GMOs have not been around very long and have not even nearly been tested enough. They need to be labeled, at least until the "not fundamentally different" question is really answered.
CoachFerg
There is no mention of fat content in the article. Will they program the proteins to produce a certain percentage of fat to add texture and flavor to their lab-grown meat? The cattlemen may be engaging in the protection of their industry, but, in my opinion, they bring up valid points. It is worthy of discussion and debate.
MNMike
"The "beef" and "meat" labels should inform consumers that the products are from animals harvested in the traditional manner..." There is little traditional about animals raised in CAFOs, and slaughtered in conditions that would still make Teddy Roosevelt squeel abotu sausage. Traditional would be a true family farm, home butcher or butcher shop, and local food. Memphis Meats, change your name! Let mega industry have the terms of meat, beef, hog, lamb, and such. Brand, copyright, then let this be what your industry uses. Carne. Since their industry doesn't use the terms, you can go ahead with carne-cow, carne-pig, carne-sheep, and so forth. I hope Kentucky Karne can bring protein prices down to a level where clean-carne will be in the poorest neighborhoods in the USA and exported around the world. Give us carne-BBQ, and carne-stirfry, and slow-roasted sous vide carne fowl that tastes like chicken (or better - pheasant, duck, etc.). The world is changing. "Your cheese has been moved." Sniff, Scurry, Hem, Haw: time to adapt or become irrelvant.
DomainRider
I'd be surprised if there was no difference between animal-grown and lab-grown meat, as the former gets exercised (even just standing in a stall) and is infiltrated and structured by fat, connective tissue, and blood vessels. I'm curious to know how the natural texture is imitated in the lab meat. If I was a farmed meat producer I'd be keeping an eye out to invest in any good quality lab production companies that emerge, perhaps in alliance with other farms.
CharlieSeattle
Something to eat that can be grown directly in a sewage treatment plant. Don't say they will not try! Yick!
Jack Decker
This is the same thing that the butter lobby did when margarine was introduced. And they succeeded. They got governments to prohibit margarine makers from coloring their product a butter-like yellow. This forced margarine makers to give their consumers coloring packets, which they then had to mix themselves. It wasn't until 1955 that most US states allowed margarine makers to do so, but it wasn't until 1967 that Wisconsin finally allowed it. And the cheese lobby tried to do essentially the same thing to what we today call "processed cheese" by trying to get the US government to label it the very off-putting "embalmed cheese". Their attempt failed. So will the cattle lobby likewise temporarily succeed as the butter lobby did or fail as the cheese lobby did? My bet is they will succeed in requiring lab meat to be labeled "lab meat" and not much more. The cattle lobby will find an ally in the "natural" food community where "GMO" is considered a swear word. But it will all come down to price. Once lab meat is cheaper than non-lab meat, consumers will switch to it. Yes, snob stores and ones that cater to the anti-technology crowd won't sell it, but they represent a very small percentage of the marketplace. My bet is that high-end restaurants will probably never serve lab meat but fast food restaurants will as soon as it is cheaper. And one of the best selling points won't be that it will stop the slaughter of animals but that it is healthier than non-lab meat. No disease (no chance of Mad Cow disease), Omega-3 fats, no parasites, higher nutritional value, and a cleaner production process. That and better and more consistent taste and mouth texture.
Trylon
Whatever. I'd eat Beaf, Porc, Chikn or Phish, as long as they taste good.
Trylon
By the way, the cattlemen might be in a lather, but other links in the supply chain aren't so leery. Tyson Foods has invested in Memphis Meats. Ranchers will lose their livelihood if alt-meat takes off. Tyson is more diversified than that. If Memphis Meats ever has an IPO, I'll be in as well, although it's more likely they'll be bought lock, stock and barrel by a megacorporation like Tyson.