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Meat is meat — on the hoof or grown in a lab

Meat is meat — on the hoof or grown in a lab
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The old Union Stockyard Gate on Halsted Street. Chicago was once the slaughtered meat capital of the nation. | AP Photo

If two members of the Illinois House get their way, you may not be able to call those frozen chunks of water made by your freezer “ice” anymore.

Well, that’s not exactly what Rep. Mike Murphy and Rep. Tim Butler, both Republicans from Springfield, want to do, but it’s what they might have proposed had they been in office in the 19th century.

OPINION

Their newly introduced bill — HB2556 — would prohibit meat grown from animal cells rather than animal slaughter from being called exactly what it is: meat.

For background on this meaty matter, many food sustainability experts are expressing serious concerns about the connection between meat production and food insecurity, climate change, antibiotic resistance, food safety problems and more. To address these concerns, a new crop of startups, financed by investors such as Bill Gates, Richard Branson and even meat companies like Tyson and Cargill, has been growing real animal meat in cultivators rather than in animals’ bodies.

It may sound like science fiction, but it’s actually quite similar to other technologies we’ve been using in food and medicine for decades. Simply by taking a sesame seed-sized biopsy from an animal’s muscle (their meat), these entrepreneurs are culturing animal cells in conditions where they grow into muscle just like they would inside the body. And from that minuscule piece of muscle, they can grow literally tons of meat.

Rather than taking months or years to raise and kill whole animals, growing just the meat we want takes a fraction of the time and resources and entails fewer food safety risks.

And while it’s not yet on the market, as someone who’s eaten such “clean meat” meat on many occasions, I can attest that it tastes delicious, too.

Some forward-thinking players in the meat sector see promise in this new method of efficient meat production, and the technology is being lauded by environmentalists and animal welfarists. But others, seeing a potential disruption to the industry of breeding, feeding, confining and slaughtering animals, are fighting a preemptive legislative battle to smother this infant of an industry in its cradle.

Under the guise of protecting consumers from confusion, bills like HB2556 are really part of such a strategy to protect cattlemen from competition.

So what does this effort to censor the cultured meat movement into a deep freeze have to do with the ice in your freezer? As it turns out, quite a lot.

During the 19th century, the ice-shipping industry produced several barons who harvested naturally-formed ice from northern lakes and shipped it around the world. When refrigeration was invented, however, the empires faced a real threat. For millennia, the only way to get ice was from nature. Now, humanity had invented a technology that allowed us to more efficiently produce ice on our own wherever we wanted, and with fewer safety concerns.

Rather than investing in this new method of ice production, the ice barons railed against it, demanding that it be called “artificial ice” and warning about its dangers to consumers. Fast-forward to today, and every subscriber of the Sun-Times has an artificial ice-maker at home — we call them freezers — and likely doesn’t even contemplate whether there’s anything “unnatural” about it at all.

Some of today’s meat barons are taking a lesson from the history of the natural ice industry by investing in the sustainable protein movement. Rather than wasting resources trying to force labels like “artificial ice” on potential competitors’ products, meat companies that want to thrive in the 21st century are actively embracing the alt-meat movement.

Bills like HB2556 will do little to stop innovation in the protein space. There’s a lot at stake (steak?), and given the challenges we face of feeding a growing human population in ways that leave a lighter footprint on the world, we need numerous solutions.

There should be no bones about it: culturing meat — yes, meat — may one day seem about as normal and natural to us as getting ice from our freezers.

Paul Shapiro is the author of Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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