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A beef over ‘clean meat’: Experts, industry advocates weigh in on name, viability of lab-grown proteins

A beef over ‘clean meat’: Experts, industry advocates weigh in on name, viability of lab-grown proteins
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The debate on what to call meat being grown in a lab has brought on a new war of the words in the meat industry.

A report from the Associated Press said that while the name hasn’t been officially decided by regulators, supporters of the science are suggesting “clean meat” to describe meat grown by replicating animal cells - a label some in the beef industry take umbrage with.

Ty Lawrence, director for the Beef Carcass Research Center at West Texas A&M University, said using the term ‘clean’ is a marketing ploy - one that could be seen as misleading.

“If they’re going to the use the term ‘meat,’ then they need to clearly say it was cultured or grown in an incubator,” said Lawrence. “It is not the meat that would meet the traditional definition of an animal being harvested and then muscles being turned into meat.”

Companies such as Memphis Meats are growing meat by culturing animal cells, though it could be years before products are on shelves, according to the AP. Big meat producers like Tyson Foods and Cargill Inc. are among Memphis Meats’ investors.

There’s some confusion over how meat grown by culturing animal cells will be regulated. The U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees meat inspections, while the Food and Drug Administration oversees other aspects of food safety, including the “standards of identity” that spell out what ingredients can go into products with specific names.

The Good Food Institute, an advocacy and lobbying group for meat alternatives, is embracing “clean meat,” which channels the positive connotations of “clean energy.” Other options it tested: “Meat 2.0,” “Safe meat” and “Pure meat.”

“Green meat” was dismissed early on. “Nobody wants to eat green meat,” said Bruce Friedrich, co-founder of the Good Food Institute.

But many in the conventional meat industry are irritated by the term and want to stamp it out before it takes hold.

“It implies that traditional beef is dirty,” says Danielle Beck, director of government affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

Lawrence is skeptical the product will ever hit supermarkets, but if it does, he believes they would have a bigger problem than the name. One problem he anticipates would be the taste and texture of the meat, as it wouldn’t be coming from a living animal with actively moving muscle.

“If someone were to get that far, the public is going to be disappointed because the cells are going to have the texture of Jell-O,” Lawrence said. “If you have a burger but a mushy texture, it’s unlikely that will be appealing in texture or taste.”

Aside from the texture, the meat could also be lacking the vitamins and minerals because, without an animal, there is no small intestine to absorb the nutrients from the food the animal would eat.

“These cultured cells will either be extremely low or probably devoid of vitamins and minerals unless they’re supplied in the growing culture,” said Lawrence. “The vitamin and mineral profile would almost certainly be starkly different.”

All the loopholes people would need to go through to create this meat would ultimately defeat the “clean” purpose, as Lawrence said hormones are required to get a muscle cell to grow and the dish it’s grown in could be contaminated by human error.

“Their theory is if you have meat in a petri dish, it’s sterile,” Lawrence said. “In theory, that’s true, but the people making these or the air itself might carry bacteria into the dish. They can probably get away with ‘clean’ until they contaminate their first batch. That would be a ‘when,’ not an ‘if.’”

Whether the meat will ever be available for public consumption is still unknown, but Lawrence anticipates the public will stick with the traditional meat rather than a trend in science.

“The consuming public will very unlikely be large buyers of this,” said Lawrence. “I’m skeptical cultured meat will ever go mainstream, and I’m skeptical it will ever be more than a science fad.”

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