Supporters of meat grown in a lab are trying to figure out what to call their product. The label “clean meat” is what they want to use on what scientist call cell cultured protein. Other options tested: “Meat 2.0,” “Safe Meat,” and “Pure Meat.” But it doesn’t sit too well with those who raise livestock and rightly so. Many in the conventional meat industry are bothered by these terms and want to stop it from taking hold.
Lab grown meat is made by extracting cells from an animal and prompting them to mature into muscle fibers and grow in a bioreactor.
The topic was openly discussed at a Nebraska Farm Bureau (NEFB) and University of Nebraska sponsored conference, the Agricultural Economic and Technology Summit, held in Kearney at the Holiday Inn July 17-18. Amanda Radke, a writer, blogger, and rancher from Mitchell, South Dakota, led the discussion and expressed her concern of the label “clean meat” and the impression it leaves on” consumers.
Meat Market Share
“Calling it ‘clean’ implies that traditional beef is somehow dirty and unsafe,” Radke said. “Traditional beef raised by caring farmers and ranchers is safe, wholesome, and good for the planet and good for us as well. And those who support the ‘clean meat’ movement would like to convince consumers otherwise in order to gain some market share in the meat case,” she said.
The argument shows the power of language as a new industry attempts to reshape eating habits. Disagreements over language are breaking out across the food business as established definitions for milk, for example, are also challenged by soy, cashew, and almond drinks.
“We have seen the dairy producer lose market share to every kind of ‘milk’ under the sun (See story pg. 9.) One example is that almond milk is the most preferred milk to use in a latte at Starbucks, so I am not saying that meat will go in that direction and consumers will widely accept lab produced meat, but it is something to think about,” she said.
The beef industry has a great brand. Those who raise cattle have invested millions of check off dollars to develop that brand, when you hear “beef, it’s what for dinner” you think of a cowboy and a sizzling steak.
“We created that image and that brand with our investment, so it’s not fair that these companies try and come in and hijack our brand for the benefit of their own marketing while also bashing us at the same time. So, it is frustrating,” Radke said. Earlier this year, the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) adopted a NEFB-initiated policy prohibiting the use of commonly known and industry recognized “meat” terms in the labeling and advertising of all lab-grown and plant-based alternatives.
Companies such as Memphis Meats are growing meat by culturing animal cells. No products have yet hit the market, though several companies have suggested that their first generation of cultured meat will be available in the next five years. Silicon Valley billionaires and big meat processors like Tyson Foods and Cargill Inc. are among Memphis Meats’ investors.
“Impossible Burger’s plant-based patty ‘bleeds’ like beef, by using beet juice. Whether it is plant-based protein or meat grown in a lab, labeling is a huge factor. I believe labeling needs to be clear and transparent for our consumers, so they have the best information possible. Frankly, I am not afraid of the competition, bring it on, but I want it differentiated in the meat case,” Radke stresses.
There may be a turf war between two U.S. federal agencies over who will regulate the emerging industry of cultured meat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) who oversees meat inspections, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) who oversees other aspects of food safety, including the “standards of identity” that spell out what ingredients can go into products with specific names.
AFBF and other agriculture organizations contend USDA is uniquely equipped to ensure both elements: inspectors are on-site daily, and USDA approves all product labels to ensure products are what they claim to be and to prevent consumers from being misled. Meat and poultry processing companies have been meeting the challenge of USDA inspection for decades. Cell-cultured meat and poultry companies can and should meet the same requirements.
“In the meantime, it seems those supporting the “clean meat” movement have focused on sustainability and creating meat in a lab is better for the environment than raising cattle on pastures across the country. When you really look at it, and you factor in lab grown meat and meat raised the conventional way on pastures, we must factor in things like beef by-products and the fact that cattle grazing is good for the top soil and maintaining that biodiversity,” she said.
“People need to recognize there are implications to growing meat in a petri dish, it takes energy, water, and electricity to keep it growing and then there is waste to haul away, like ammonia. So, there are a lot of concerns as these companies rush to get this to market so these venture capitalists can reap the rewards of their investments. In the push to get this product to market, there are so many unknowns about cell cultured proteins, and that is concerning to me. By my observation, their sustainability claims are pretty faulty; however, by pushing old misconceptions to sell their products, I fear the consumer will be swayed that proteins grown in a laboratory would be more beneficial to the environment than traditional beef production methods,” Radke said.
Radke recommends that farmers and ranchers get active. Pick up the phone and call our elected officials. Let them know we are concerned about this. “On the social media side of things, we need to share the amazing story about how cattle grazing promotes biodiversity of the soil, protects wildlife habitat, and utilizes solar power to produce highly nourishing beef and beneficial by-products. There are a lot of great truths in the beef industry to talk about and we need to share that information and make it go viral,” Radke said.