The Beef Over What to Call Lab Meat Is Starting to Sizzle

(CN) – Technology has ushered in a new era for food, prompting lawmakers across the nation to ask: What is meat?

As the number of food startups growing cultured or in vitro meat increases, so too does the number of concerned lawmakers.

During the 2019 legislative session, more than a dozen states passed bills seeking to regulate or redefine the use of the term “meat” on consumer packaging. Two federal agencies, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture are also developing national guidelines.

One bill remains pending before the Washington state Legislature and another in Washington, D.C.

While for many consumers, this science-fiction food seems like something from the future, animal rights advocates say it can’t come soon enough.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals president Ingrid Newkirk invested in early research to develop in vitro meat by supporting Willem van Eelen, a Dutch researcher who pioneered lab-grown meat. Nearly 20 years later, she is amazed to watch as Memphis Meats’ meatballs and Finless Foods’ fillets near dinner plates.

“They actually are animal proteins, it is meat, it is not like meat or faux meat, it is actual animal cells, so it’s absurd to even suggest it isn’t meat,” Newkirk said. “The future of food is now.”

But others say not so fast—particularly those with a stake in steak production. 

Earlier this year, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association announced a campaign to correct “fake meat facts,” questioning the technology, safety, and scientific integrity of lab-grown proteins.

“To me, meat needs to have feet,” said Colorado state Representative Kimmi Lewis, R-Kim.

Lewis co-sponsored a bill in Colorado advising the use of words “lab-grown” or “artificially cultured” to distinguish the products from meat from animals. The bill didn’t make it past committee, but the Colorado House adopted a resolution in April asking the FDA to expedite rule-making to require accurate food labeling to inform consumers.

“[Meat labeling] is important to me because I’m a cattle producer myself,” Lewis said. “We just want to make sure that consumers know what they’re getting in the cell-cultured protein.”

In nearby Arizona, lawmakers approved legislation prohibiting producers from “misrepresent[ing] a product that is not derived from harvested production livestock as meat or a meat food product,” suggesting use of the terms “fake meat or alternative meat.”

Arkansas took it a step further in March, signing legislation that extends labeling protections to meat and rice, concluding that products such as “cauliflower rice” can no longer be labeled as such.

The FDA and USDA announced a joint partnership to develop labels and regulation for these products in March, and shortly after two Mississippi senators introduced a bill to Congress that would codify this partnership into national law.

The FDA will oversee “cell collection, cell banks, and cell growth and differentiation,” while the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service will step in after cells have been harvested to regulate “the production and labeling of human food products derived from the cells of livestock and poultry.”

A USDA spokesperson said the agency does not expect to issue new inspection regulations for cultured products.

“As with all FSIS-regulated products, cell-cultured products will be subject to FSIS requirements for hazard analysis and critical control points and sanitation, as well as other applicable requirements,” the spokesperson said.

Despite attempts to legislate these products, advances in the field are about to leave the barn.

Boulder-based Bond Pet Food is developing pet food from lab-grown meat using a process similar to cheese making. Founder Rich Kelleman said it’s a common misconception that there’s something straight out of Frankenstein about the products.

“Some people may look at this as we’re just purely using biochemistry and fabricating this through chemicals and that it’s this crazy concoction that we’re making in the lab, but the reality is that we’re using natural inputs and processes to produce our final ingredients,” Kelleman said. “If people are eating cheese, for example, 90 percent of the cheese that is out there is in part made through this same process because those enzymes are made recombinantly.”

Kelleman hopes to see lab-derived pet food on store shelves within four years but is under no illusion that his small company is going to eliminate the rest of the pet food market.

“I understand why, with new technologies, new ways of producing these meat proteins and products that people who have made their livelihoods with conventional farming and ranching could see this as a threat,” he said. “I think there’s a need and opportunity to pursue it and to get these in the market and give people a choice and then the public can make those decisions on their own without us putting pressure on the industry in order to label it this way or that way.”

But Lewis said proper labeling will help make consumers aware of what they are eating. Otherwise, she said she’s not overly concerned about competition either.

“Any consumer that wants to know what they’re really truly eating would want the steak,” Lewis said. “They would want real protein not something that was grown in a Petri dish.”

Meat plays an undeniable role in the hearth and home, from turkey at Thanksgiving to crispy bacon at Sunday brunch. So much so that people who opt for a meatless existence still find themselves pining for something like it.

“Most of us aren’t raised vegetarian or vegan, so we grew up learning these certain flavors and textures so when you go vegan you can miss those,” said Sam Turnbull, a Toronto-based vegan blogger behind “Doesn’t Taste Like Chicken.”

Turnbull grew up in a home where animal heads were hung on the wall as trophies and said one of the hardest myths to bust is that vegans don’t enjoy food.

“It’s not necessarily that you’re missing eating animal flesh, you’re missing the memories you grew up with,” Turnbull said.

Cultured meat can’t be considered vegan yet since it requires animal cells and nutrients. Turnbull is still happy to see it on menus, though.

“I think it’s great because there’s a lot of people out there who can’t live without meat – like they literally say that,” Turnbull said.

While PETA’s Newkirk has been waiting decades for this technology to hit markets, she said she has no interest in eating it either.

“It’s not for vegetarians,” she said. “It’s for people who are reluctant to make the switch, who always want to eat meat, so they can continue to eat it, but they’ll no longer be contributing to these problems.”

Newkirk suggested labeling cultured meat as “clean meat” or “kind meat.”

“It’s not raised in feces and urine and awful, but a sterile laboratory, a sterile factory,” she said. “You will not get E. coli, you won’t get Campylobacter, you will not get these other wretched problems, some of which are fatal. We can raise it in a way without any pain and suffering.”

Meat, flesh, protein; Newkirk said you could call it doorknobs, but it won’t stop it from coming.

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