The peak body for Australia’s cattle industry says it is considering calling for reforms to prevent lab-grown meat from being labelled “meat”.
Experts think a commercial industry to supply meat grown from stem cells in a laboratory is achievable within the next decade and there is also rising demand for plant-based meat alternatives.
France recently banned the use of the words “meat” and “dairy” on vegan and vegetarian food labels, while farm lobby groups in the United States are calling for cell-grown and plant-based replicas to be labelled as such.
Cattle Council of Australia chief executive, Margo Andrae, said her organisation did not want to see a repeat of the dairy industry’s battle over the term “milk” and “dairy” and was considering its own defensive options.
The definition of meat
Mrs Andrae said she would like to see meat legally defined as coming from the flesh of a slaughtered animal, and that existing definitions of meat in Australia may need to be bolstered.
“We’re assessing whether these are adequate for what we’re starting to see coming through and what we’re seeing other countries do.”
There are various regulations in Australia that define meat. However, they could be open to interpretation and reviews if — or when — cell-based agriculture becomes a commercial possibility.
Australia’s food safety regulator, Food Standards Australia New Zealand, says in its food standards code that meat needs to come from “the whole or part of the carcass of [cattle]”.
It also says meat must not come from and does not include “foetuses or the parts of foetuses”.
Given most lab-grown meats are currently made using Foetal Bovine Serum — a product made from the blood of an unborn calf that has been extracted before its birth — lab meat could encounter barriers under this code.
The Meat Industry Act bans the sale and disposal of meat for human consumption unless it is from a consumable animal slaughtered and processed at a meat processing facility licensed for that purpose.
“We believe there will need to be some changes, and while a lot of people would think these terms are protected, the reality is we have to make sure they are,” Mrs Andrae said.
Meat labelling a hot issue in US, France
The Cattle Council’s view is in line with the strategy taken by the United States Cattlemen’s Association (USCA).
The USCA is lobbying America’s Department of Agriculture to define meat as coming from the flesh of an animal, slaughtered using traditional methods.
USCA director of policy Lia Biondo is calling on Australia’s cattle sector to follow its lead.
“We hope they [Australia] can get involved in this conversation as well,” she said.
Last month, France banned the use of meat and dairy-related words from vegan and vegetarian food labels and reserved them for products of animal origin.
French MP and farmer Jean Baptise Moreau pushed for the reform.
He took to Twitter to state, “It is important to combat false claims. Our products must be designated correctly. The terms of cheese or steak will be reserved for products of animal origin!”
In March this year, an international lobby group, the Cellular Agriculture Society, was launched to help organise the cultured meat sector.
Cultured meat is also known as “clean meat”, the sector’s preferred term for lab-grown meat.
The Cellular Agriculture Society’s founder and chief executive, Kristopher Gasteratos, said if cattle lobby groups worldwide continued to push for legislative protection of the definition of meat, it could stifle the emerging industry.
“If they are successful it could have an impact on the growth of the industry, but I’m not sure what the logical basis for that lobbying is,” he said.
“It might be the exact same product that is being produced but just in a different way, so I’m not so sure how reasonable that is.
Matt Ball is from the Good Food Institute in America, which works with clean meat companies and promotes the technology.
He agreed lab-grown meats should be called meat.
Investors back lab-grown meat
Billionaire Bill Gates recently invested millions into this emerging sector and said clean meat was going to be the “future of food”.
One of America’s largest beef producers, Tyson Foods, invested in Memphis Meats earlier this year, following the lead of global agricultural conglomerate Cargill Inc, which invested in the company in 2017.
Mr Ball said he was confident clean meat was going to be the next big advancement in the technological production of meat.
“I think that is going to be a real game-changer for the industry.”
Mr Gasteratos said the wave of investments by traditional red meat processors, as well as billionaires, was a positive sign for the emerging sector.
“They see it as the future and they know that our system of animal agriculture is one that is ripe for innovation,” he said.
Mr Ball likens clean meat to how the automobile replaced horse and buggies, and foresees a time when livestock farms are a rare sight.
“So it’s entirely possible that there will be a market for special products [meat from animals raised on farms], but I doubt that in 100 years that we’re going to have anything like the cattle industry as we know it today.”
Future of farmed meat
Professor of Meat Science at the University of Melbourne, Robyn Warner, argues there will be a place for lab and farmed meat.
“I don’t think we will ever get rid of livestock production,” Professor Warner said.
She also said while some clean meat start-ups are hinting at commercial releases of such products in coming years, the reality is they will first be subjected to heavy regulatory reviews.
“A lot of attention will need to be given to the regulatory process, and it will need to start going through regulation soon because that will take a while,” Professor Warner said.
“Then there is the issue of if Australian consumers will accept it, which I think will come over time.”