Farmers have a beef with plant- or lab-grown ‘meat.’ Should you care?

Why We Wrote This

How we speak can affect how we think ​– and spend. Consider a rancher-led battle over food labels, where ‘plant-based meat’ is either an oxymoron or cutting-edge Earth-friendly cuisine.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Cattle at the McLean Feedyard in Texas. The cattle ranching industry is arguing that lab-grown meat products should not be permitted to use the term ‘beef.’ Some states are considering laws regulating use of the word ‘meat,’ in a dispute that touches on evolving consumer markets and environmental concerns.

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Ever since the dairy industry won limits on margarine a century ago, new food technologies have had to battle over what they’ll be labeled. The big contest today is over the word “meat.” It’s revving up as farmers seek to defend their market against alternative proteins. One threat is genetic technology that’s allowing start-up companies to mimic red meat and poultry in a lab without all the time and trouble of raising cows, pigs, and chickens. Missouri last year passed a law defining “meat” as “any edible portion of livestock or poultry carcass or part thereof.” Nebraska may be up next, but ultimately a federal rule is expected to preempt state laws. All this comes with high stakes for the environment. Farming and ranching already account for up to 30 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions. “We want to solve what we think is probably the transcendent challenge of our generation,” says Todd Boyman of Hungry Planet, which makes plant-based foods. The goal, he says, is to “to give people the taste and the textures of what they love” but in a more sustainable way.

It seems almost silly. Farmers and ranchers are pushing state legislatures to define “meat.”

Missouri last year became the first state to oblige, passing a law saying it was “any edible portion of livestock or poultry carcass or part thereof.” Nebraska may be up next, considering legislation with similar language, and efforts are also under way in Virginia. North Dakota, Wyoming, Tennessee, New Mexico, Colorado, and Indiana.

Why all the fuss? Money and fear. The conventional meat industry is worried that as competitors mimic the taste and texture of their products using vegetable proteins, they will cut into sales. Even more concerning: Start-up companies are mimicking their products in the lab, using genes to grow red meat and poultry without all the time and trouble of raising cows, pigs, and chickens.

Such competition, comprising only about 1 percent of the meat industry, is growing fast. And it comes at an especially sensitive time, because the conventional industry is under attack for its detrimental impact on the environment, from greenhouse gases to water use. This week, a huge study published in The Lancet, a British medical journal, called for a radical transformation in agricultural production and diets, including more than halving the world’s intake of red meat.

If the plant-based and cell-based companies can show that their products avoid these environmental costs, they may well steal away customers, even perhaps overcoming the “Ewww” factor of eating meat produced in a lab.

A big part of these products’ consumer appeal will depend on what they’re called.

Take, for example, a sausage made with chicken produced from cells in a lab. “If I was required to call that chicken-flavored sausage with test-tube grown chicken cells, I'm not putting any of my money into the success of that product,” says Stuart Pape, chairman of the Food and Drug Administration practice at the law firm Polsinelli in Washington. “It's not an accident that some of the conventional-meat folks want the name not to be ‘cell-based’ or ‘cultured’ meat, but ‘lab-grown’ meat.”

The battle is already joined, no matter what the dictionary says. (Webster's New World College Dictionary leads with “the flesh of animals used as food,” supplanting the broader archaic definition “food.”)

“It is meat, but it’s just produced in a different way,” says Nicole Manu, a staff attorney with the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit advancing plant-based and cell-based meat. [Editor's note: This paragraph was corrected to make clear GFI's legal status.]

“Lab-grown fake meat products should not be permitted to use the term ‘beef’ and any associated nomenclature,” Danielle Beck, senior director of government affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, counters in a statement to the Monitor. “NCBA is committed to protecting consumers and preserving an even playing field for real beef products.”

At the end of this month, the group will hold its annual convention in New Orleans and further refine its strategy for what it calls a top priority.

It’s happened before

Ever since the dairy industry defended butter by imposing limits on margarine a century ago, new food technologies have had to battle over what they’ll be labeled. In the late 20th century, genetically modified crops faced fierce opposition from environmental and other groups that wanted them labeled as such. For 20 years, the dairy industry has been fighting to convince regulators to force soy, rice, almond, and other producers to stop calling their liquid beverages milk.

Last month, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Blue Diamond Growers, saying a reasonable consumer would not expect the company’s almond milk to be nutritionally equal to milk. Still, the Food and Drug Administration is looking into the matter, with Jan. 25 the deadline for comments before it rules.

In the case of meat, the US Department of Agriculture will determine, with FDA input, what the meat alternatives will be called. Its decision will preempt the state laws now being considered.

The substitute meat companies have an incentive to show that they’re different from conventional meat so they can win over customers, Mr. Pape says.

Convergence of palate and planet

“We formulated this because we want to solve what we think is probably the transcendent challenge of our generation,” says Todd Boyman, co-founder of St. Louis-based Hungry Planet, which makes products trademarked Match Meats. “And that is: How do you bend the curve on human and planetary health? And the way that you're going to do that is to give people the taste and the textures of what they love and what is absolutely a craveable food. But we're going to do it in a much more responsible way.”

That’s the point that the Lancet study makes, which reflects earlier research: Farming and ranching already use about 40 percent of the world’s land and 70 percent of its fresh water, and they are responsible for up to 30 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions. With the world population reaching about 10 billion people by 2050, expecting to feed them a Western-style diet will stretch and perhaps exceed the world’s food-growing capacity.

“Because much of the world’s population is inadequately nourished and many environmental systems and processes are pushed beyond safe boundaries by food production, a global transformation of the food system is urgently needed,” the report says.

A view from rolling grasslands

But the idea that the solution is replacing livestock with vegetables, fruits, and other healthy foods is too simplistic, argues Nicolette Hahn Niman, an environmental attorney, rancher, vegetarian, and author of “Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production.” Much of the pastureland that grazing animals use can’t be used for growing crops, anyway. So taking beef and other grazing animals out of production simply decreases the food supply.

The key transformation is to move from grain-fed to grass-fed livestock, she says. That would allow the millions of acres of corn and soybeans to go to create plant-based foods rather than feeding animals. Indeed, evidence is accumulating that allowing livestock to graze pastureland actually improves soil health.

“It’s not the cow,” Ms. Niman says. “It’s the how.”

The American Grassfed Association, which advocates for grass-feeding farmers and ranchers, hasn’t yet taken a position on cell-based meat. But President Will Harris, who is awaiting test results that should show his farm is carbon neutral or near carbon neutral, is adamant about plant-based meat companies labeling their product.

“I would go to war to defend their right to enter the marketplace,” he says. But “the fact is meat is animal protein and I don't see how you can call nonanimal protein ‘meat.’ ... ‘Plant-based protein’ is fine.”

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