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The Farcical Battle Over What to Call Lab-Grown Meat

The Farcical Battle Over What to Call Lab-Grown Meat
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Hamburger in petri dish
Mark Post holds the world's first lab-grown beef burger in 2013

On Thursday, in a small but packed auditorium, the FDA convened a public meeting about lab-grown meat—but you wouldn’t have known if you were listening for those words. According to the FDA, it was actually about “foods produced using animal cell culture technology.”

And according to the meetings’ various speakers, it was “clean meat” or “artificial meat” or “in vitro meat” or “cell culture products,” or “ cultured meat,” or “cultured tissue” (not meat!) This is a war of words, with each one chosen to evoke specific associations. And it is a war to define lab-grown meat as either the exciting future of food or a freak science experiment.

It comes at a critical moment. Well-funded startups like Memphis Meats have been feeding their lab-grown chicken to curious tasters. Traditional meat producers like Tyson and Cargill have invested money in lab-grown animal protein. The field has made enough progress that Food and Drug Administration decided to convene a public meeting to discuss how lab-grown meat should be regulated.

Meat producers—particularly beef producers—question whether it should be called “meat” at all. That’s why Rhonda Miller, past president of the American Meat Science Association, chose to call it “cultured tissue” in her presentation. “Meats scientist do not have enough information on cultured tissue to determine whether it should be called meat,” she said, pointing out that lab-grown meat companies haven’t exactly made samples available for study.

Maggie Nutter of the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association began her four minutes of public comment by introducing herself as a fourth generation Montana rancher who is training her children and grandchildren to be fifth and sixth generations ranchers. It was an appeal to tradition—to the idea of family farms and pastoral ways.

If nostalgia for traditional foodways is one pole for the current food movement, the other is environmental and social responsibility. That’s why activists have leapt from the favored scientific term “cultured meat” (referring to the cell cultures in which it grows) to “clean meat.” “Clean” serves many roles here: It echoes “clean energy.” It’s a nod to the lack of animal slaughter. And it refers to the sterile conditions under which the meat cells grow. “We call this sector clean meat,” said Jessica Almy of the Good Food Institute at the FDA meeting. Her organization had previously run a survey that showed consumers were most likely to purchase a product labeled “clean” over “safe,” “pure,” “cultured,” or “meat 2.0.”

“Clean meat,” not surprisingly, riles up beef producers. Danielle Beck, a lobbyist for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association , told me on the phone last week that the term is inherently offensive to traditional meat producers, as if real meat is somehow dirty. The NCBA has also called lab-grown meat “fake meat” and said the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not the FDA, should regulate the field.

Jack Bobo, chief communications officer of the biotech company Intrexon, favors the term “craft meat” over “clean meat.” The dinner table isn’t the place for moralizing, he told me at Thursday’s meeting. Why not use a term that evokes craft breweries and hand-jarred pickles instead? The debate over what to call lab-grown meat is a debate over what values we deem most important in food.

The only speaker at the meeting who deliberately and repeatedly used the term “lab-grown meat” was Michael Hansen, senior scientist for Consumers Union, the organization that also publishes Consumer Reports. Hansen noted that Consumer Reports conducted a survey in June asking respondents which of seven terms would the most accurate label. At the bottom of the list were “in vitro meat” (8 percent), “clean meat” (9 precent), “cultured meat” (11 percent).

At the top of the list was at 35 percent was, well, the term nobody else at the meeting wanted to utter: “lab-grown meat.” The war of words is on, but maybe it is already won.

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